Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 19, 2014

Critical Muslim

Filed under: Islam — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 2.41.44 PM

I just received the January-March 2014 Critical Muslim,  a special issue on the Maghreb. Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-edits this essential quarterly journal with Ziauddin Sardar, discusses the term in an article titled “Dusklands”:

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.

The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.

Who can possibly resist a journal that simultaneously calls itself Muslim—albeit critical—and that refers to William Burroughs in the same breath? I would not and neither should you.

I contributed an article titled “Jews of the Maghreb” that expanded on themes I first broached in film reviews about Arab Jews, a term I find more useful than Mizrahim, the Hebrew designation for the Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa. In the course of researching the CM article, I wrote something for Counterpunch titled “Voices of the Mizrahim” that despite the title concurs with Iraqi Jew Ella Shohat that the term should be Arab Jew:

I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the U.S. Most members of my family were born and raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the U.S., England, and Holland. When my grandmother first encountered Israeli society in the ’50s, she was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so differently–the European Jews–were actually European Christians.

My article was based on scrupulously conducted research that concluded that the Jews of the Maghreb enjoyed a much higher status and a degree of freedom that amounted to a kind of Golden Age. Zionist historians who basically adopt the same essentialist “the goyim have always been against us” methodology of Daniel Goldenhagen have challenged this interpretation. I cited Richard Hull’s Jews and Judaism in African History that emphasized the network of trade that allowed the Fatimids to function as a vast entrepôt linking the far western reaches of the Maghreb with India and China. Key to its success were the Jewish traders of North Africa who became so instrumental that Ali Kilis—a Jew despite his name—became the first vizier of the Fatimid Empire. Hull writes:

Jewish life flourished under the Fatimids, and as we’ve already discovered, by the eleven century the city of Kairwan in modern Tunisia had become a major center of Jewish learning and economic activity. Jewish scholars traveling between Europe and the Middle East rested, studied, and taught in Kairwan. Robert Seltzer tells us that “academies were established by important talmudists and prosperous Jewish merchant families supported Jewish scientists and philosophers” (Seltzer 1980: 345). Egyptian and Maghrebian Jewry flourished, and Jews from the old Abbasid territories began to migrate to Africa.5

My article appears in CM 9 alongside some fascinating other pieces that really epitomize the journal’s ability to weave together culture, society and politics.

I especially appreciated Julia Melcher’s “Invisible Interzone” that examines Tangier, the Moroccan city prized by American expatriates, especially bohemian authors such as the aforementioned William S. Burroughs and Paul and Jane Bowles, whose work I had a keen interest in as an undergraduate in the early 60s. Melcher reveals that Burroughs had very little interest in Arab culture and even told a visiting Kerouac that he just should push the natives aside “like little pricks”. Paul Bowles was far better in terms of becoming engaged with Maghreb culture, but finally confessed to an interviewer that we are “not likely to get to know the Moslems very well.” The next to last paragraph of Melcher’s very fine article contains this very shrewd observation on the strained relationship between the locals and the bohemian self-exiles:

But how did those natives, the Tanjawis, perceive the invaders of their city? What are their accounts of the whole story? Do their voices remain unheard and their faces invisible in the discourse and representation of their colonisers, or do they finally claim their own ground in the narrow streets and shadows of the dreamlike city? Cunningham Graham once summed it up in a rather trenchant observation: ‘They were objects of wonder to the Moroccans, who looked on them with awe, mixed with amusement, and regarded them as amiable madmen who, for some purpose of his own that he had not disclosed, Allah had endowed with the command of fleets and armies, and with mighty engines of destruction, so that it behoved the faithful to walk warily in their dealings with them.’ Whether this is true or not, Graham convincingly shifts the perspective. It’s not the colonised Arabs who were the objects of wonder or madmen of odd cultural background in this whole narrative of Moroccan colonialism. On the contrary, the Westerners who lived there themselves often exposed a good deal of their own sometimes dysfunctional culture and way of living, bringing their various neuroses and addictions, longing to escape the morals, norms and state control of their home countries.

In terms of Bowles’s rueful admission about not being able to know the Muslims very well, I cannot help be struck by the mounting Islamophobia on the left, mostly prompted by a bastardized “anti-imperialist” tendency to put a minus where the USA puts a plus—taking its most extreme form with respect to Syria, Robin Yassin-Kassab’s homeland. A decade ago the left embraced the Sunni guerrillas in Fallujah as much as it did the Vietnamese fighters just over a decade earlier. As long as their weapons were aimed at an American ally, they were “good guys”. Now, erroneously viewed as CIA tools no different than UNITA or the Nicaraguan contras, the Muslim combatant is a symbol of religious fanaticism and medieval resistance to progress. Just as was the case with Burroughs and the Bowles, the Arab figures more as a symbol than a living, breathing human being.

The best and easiest way to develop an understanding of Muslim culture and politics is to subscribe to Critical Muslim, a journal that I recommend without qualifications. Subscription information and ordering back issues from the British publisher is here. Back issues can also be purchased on Amazon.com using the dollar rather than the British pound.

Finally, I would like to direct your attention to the website of the Muslim Institute (http://www.musliminstitute.org/home), the publisher of Critical Muslim, that describes itself as “a Fellowship society of intellectuals, thinkers, academics, artists, and professionals. It aims to promote and support the growth of thought, knowledge, research, creativity and open debate within the Muslim community and the society at large”. This, like the journal, is essential reading for those trying to understand “Islam without tears”.

I would refer you to the article “Father Sarrouj’s bookshop and the Death of Ideas in Tripoli” by Mazen El Makkouk that appears on the home page, a sad reminder of the mortal danger posed by Salafist type politics in Libya as well as Syria. Father Sarrouj’s bookstore was torched on January 3rd, in all likelihood by an extremist. El Makkouk writes:

The Salafists, who last week set fire to Father Sarrouj’s bookshop, also inhabit the fallen universe. But, perhaps tired of being fallen, they find exhilarating the claim that they can and should turn the tables, and rule the universe. In a traditional Muslim society like Tripoli, this fact might not seem obvious, since it is easily mistaken for deep religiosity, whose ordinary forms, such as prayer, are shared. Salafism can even come across as a school of jurisprudence, promoting particular “correct” forms of worship. But turning the tables is a declaration of war, and at the core of Salafist ethics is the belief that normal rules don’t apply: the destruction of property and lives, not usually halal, are now made halal for them.

Tripoli is living up to its Greek name: it is, more than ever, three cities. But the Salafists did not spring out of nowhere, suddenly brainwashed by foreign ideas. Within living memory, the universes have been separate. It has only gotten worse. In homage to Father Sarrouj (who, thankfully, was not physically hurt), I would like to give a bookish answer to the problem. On several occasions, Father Sarrouj complained to me that no one reads. Yes, that is a classic bookseller complaint. But I think that Father Sarrouj was aware of the public dimension of reading: of the exchange of ideas on public issues.

The problem with the bourgeois universe is that it is afraid of public issues. It can’t believe that it has made it out of poverty, and now wants to put as much of a distance between it and poverty as it can. One thing that it tells itself is that it is now better, it is more educated, no longer backward. Ironically, education, the source of social progress, is antithetical to a public spirit. The only purpose is to get ahead, and stay ahead, and books (arranged on bookcases in tasteful homes), only serve as a badge of prosperity and enlightenment.

Salafism thrives in Tripoli because bourgeois Islam is private: it has no public spirit, no way of inviting you to be a citizen discussing public issues with other citizens. This is because bourgeois Islam accepts the division of the universe into enlightened and fallen realms—“model Muslim” maps almost perfectly onto “solid bourgeois citizen.” What is there to discuss? Outside the respectable realm lies a dark area of taboo. The Salafists exist, but we know very little about them.

At the end of the article Mazen El Makkouk is identified as a PhD student in Literature at the University of Notre Dame whose dissertation is about the way concepts of literariness can inform readings of the Qur’an. If his analysis strikes you as powerful—and surely it should—I can only conclude by urging you to subscribe to CM or to buy single issues. It is the best way you can stay abreast of some of the most advanced thinking in the Middle East and North Africa.

January 18, 2014

Mondoweiss as a Baathist outlet

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:06 pm

annieAnnie Robbins: Baathist mouthpiece

The comments underneath Talal Aylan’s article on Yarmouk that I linked to below are really quite shocking, as bad as Moon of Alabama–an open sewer of Baathist talking points.

It seems that Annie Robbins, the editor-at-large of Mondoweiss, is a mouth-breathing Baathist tool based on her comments:

i’m sorry, but i can’t throw my lot with fighters who slice open the chest of non believers and eat their heart out. this is not a ‘revolution’ i can support and it has nothing to do with the palestinian cause just because some of those radicalized jhiadist might be palestinians. and i’m also not saying or implying most or all palestinians who have a dog in this fight are aligned with those factions. and there are rebels aligned with those with legitimate aspiration of freedom in syria fighting against assad, but they shouldn’t embed inside a densely populated refugee camp.

note how they didn’t wear burkas in iraq so much before we invaded and now they do. it would be perfectly fine for some people for the entire middle east to be fanatical stone age, backwards. you bring up assad bombing his own cities. frankly, something tells me decimating appello or damascus isn’t high on assad list of things he’d like to do.

Dreadful stuff, really dreadful.



Long before I wrote this, I tried to post a comment on Mondoweiss. After nearly 24 hours, it is still in a moderation queue and likely never to appear there.

I am really quite shocked by the level of Islamophobia on display here that comes straight out of the “war on terror” rhetoric of both Putin and Bashar al-Assad. It is almost as if I have wandered into the Moon of Alabama website.

There is a deep malaise obviously at work in “Palestinian solidarity” circles, which is probably rooted in the bogus credentials of the Baathist dictatorship as a front-line state against Israel. Of course, you can only adopt that orientation in clear ignorance of the facts. It was Bashar al-Assad’s father who colluded with the Phalangists and Israel to slaughter Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila.

It is hardly worth answering the Baathist talking points here. At this stage of the game, anybody who sides with a government that drops barrel bombs on civilians is beyond hope.

2013 in review

Filed under: year end summary — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 460,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 20 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

On Israelis calling each other Nazis

Filed under: Fascism,zionism — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

NY Times, January 18, 2014

The Opinion Pages|Op-Ed Contributor

Sometimes ‘Nazi’ Is the Right Word


TEL AVIV — “NAZI” is a short word. It has only two syllables, like “rac-ist” or “kill-er.” “Democracy,” on the other hand, is a long word with lots of syllables that is very tiring to say. It may not be as tiring as saying “freedom of expression” or “social justice,” but still, there is something really exhausting about it.

People in Israel use “Nazi” when they want the most vicious curse possible, and it’s usually directed at someone they perceive as belligerent. It could be a cop, a soldier or an elected official who, in their opinion, is acting like a bully.Such usage is offensive and infuriating. As the son of Holocaust survivors, I find it particularly rankling. This week the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill that would criminalize saying “Nazi” under inappropriate circumstances. The government views the word as a weapon of mass destruction no less lethal than an Iranian nuclear bomb, and so it insists on Israel’s basic right to protect itself from the threat.

Many Israelis think that passing a law against a word is stupid and juvenile; others see it as fascist and anti-democratic. Incidentally, saying “fascist” or “anti-democratic” is also seen as insulting and offensive. And I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tried to outlaw those words in the future, too.

Read full article

Watch full version of “Defamation”, from which clip above was extracted.

January 17, 2014

While you were neutral about Yarmouk

Filed under: Palestine,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

While you were neutral about Yarmouk

on January 17, 2014

Ruined buildings in the Yarmouk refugee camp, summer 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

While you were insisting on neutrality about Yarmouk, the Syrian regime dropped barrel bombs on it. Mohammad Al Far. Husam Abo Ahmad. Mohammad Tafori. Mohammad Suhaib Al Qides. Ala’a Fri’j. These men are all dead. Mohammad Taha would later die too when he, along with a larger demonstration, approached a regime checkpoint in frustration after the carnage rained on them from above.

The Pro-Palestinian movement was delayed in picking up on the tragic unraveling of Yarmouk. It took the work of a great deal of dedicated activists to force it into the forefront of the solidarity movement’s agenda. What couldn’t be predicted, however, was that, in the place of silence, an ugly neutrality would hover over the new-founded concern. And that said the neutrality was often an unconvincing veil for something much more vile. Perhaps, in our naivety, we believe that when Yarmouk became visible, it would be nearly impossible to omit the clear fact that the siege was being imposed by the Syrian regime. Instead, it was the oppositional fighters in the camp who fell under the spotlight. A chorus emerged, one familiar enough to evoke a surreal sense of Déjà vu.

full: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/01/neutral-about-yarmouk.html

The best and worst films of 2013

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition January 17-19, 2014
Why Hollywood is Incapable of Making Great Films

The Best and Worst Films of 2013


Before explaining my somewhat heterodox approach to best and worst lists, I want to follow up on my reporting on the witch hunt against Armond White, who was facing discipline over his alleged heckling of Steve McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle awards ceremony. Since then White has been expelled from NYFCC. Rather than giving you my take on this, I would refer you to an excellent article by Henry Stewart in L Magazine titled “Armond White is just a red herring”.  Stewart spoke for me when he wrote:

Armond’s ejection from the organization seems reasonable (if regrettably messy); but does the practice of bestowing honors to films and filmmakers and then hobnobbing with them at ceremonies and industry parties? “Critics should not be in the business of giving out awards,” Times critic AO Scott (who’s professionally forbidden to belong to any awards-bestowing critics groups) wrote on Twitter, continuing, “Criticism rests on the independence and integrity of the singular voice, and group voting+partying with the winners undermines that.”

I haven’t yet seen a critics-group this year recognize a film that truly needed recognition: every one praised a piece of prominently lobbied-for Oscarbait: 12 Years, American Hustle, etc., the same movies that won Golden Globes and which will likely go on to win Academy Awards. I’m a member of the Online Film Critics Society (because belonging to any group has its useful perks, like year-end screeners), which named 12 Years a Slave the year’s best movie. But it was a movie I strongly disliked, so what does the group’s award and my membership in the organization have to do with each other? This is what Scott means, I think, by voting being meaningless: consensus is by definition middlebrow, unenthusiastic, dispassionate—nothing we should want our film criticism to be.

In line with Stewart’s reference to recognizing films that truly need recognition, my picks for best films of the year will by and large never get full-page ads in the N.Y. Times and relentless public relations blitzkriegs from the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world. (I say by and large because The Weinstein Company produced “Philomena”, one of my picks.) But mostly my choices are either fiction films not made in Hollywood or documentaries, for which this was a banner year. I also tend to shy away from American “indie” movies that come out of Sundance since I find them formulaic. My critical faculties were honed by my exposure to cinema’s greatest artists who I was fortunate enough to be exposed to when I was a student at Bard College in the early 1960s. Each week a new film by Buñuel, Kurosawa, Godard, and Kubrick et al would open. Just as we will never see another Mozart; so we will never see the likes of that generation again.

full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/01/17/the-best-and-worst-films-of-2013/

David O. Russell, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and William Shakespeare: some comparisons

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Yesterday I decided to allow my readers to evaluate David Denby’s claim that “American Hustle” was “into the magical sphere—Shakespeare rules over it and Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are denizens—where profound human foolishness becomes a form of grace.” Thanks to Youtube, it is fairly easy to provide sample film clips that make comparisons possible. Let’s start with David O. Russell’s “American Hustle”.

In this scene above you see Abscam conman Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale, which makes about as much sense as Woody Allen playing a Nazi general) bickering with his wife Roslyn. I imagine that some people must have found this scene funny but the humor was lost on me. Like “Nebraska”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, and “August: Osage County”, this is just one more Oscar-destined film whose main characters are repulsive. It is beyond the scope of this article to trace the origins of this tendency to create such characters, but I think that Martin Scorsese played a major role. Creating sympathetic characters must strike the up-and-coming director or screenwriter as passé. Throughout “American Hustle”, you see scenes like this one after the other. They left me feeling soiled and depressed.

Made in 1940, “Shop Around the Corner” is considered Ernst Lubitsch’s crowning achievement and is ranked among the greatest ever made in Hollywood. It stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a couple of department store clerks who can’t stand each other but have not yet discovered that they have been carrying on a passionate correspondence all along—they have been using fake names. In the clip below, Stewart is about to meet Sullavan and discover that she is simultaneously the woman he loves and the woman he can’t stand.

The gentle kidding between Stewart and a fellow clerk is typical Lubitsch, which is to say that it is supremely wise about the human heart.

Wikipedia cites his biographer Scott Eyman who characterized the “Lubitsch touch”:

With few exceptions Lubitsch’s movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom… What came to preoccupy this anomalous artist was the comedy of manners and the society in which it transpired, a world of delicate sangfroid, where a breach of sexual or social propriety and the appropriate response are ritualized, but in unexpected ways, where the basest things are discussed in elegant whispers; of the rapier, never the broadsword… To the unsophisticated eye, Lubitsch’s work can appear dated, simply because his characters belong to a world of formal sexual protocol. But his approach to film, to comedy, and to life was not so much ahead of its time as it was singular, and totally out of any time.

Preston Sturges was the greatest director of “screwball comedies”. In this scene below from “Sullivan’s Travels”, his greatest, you see Joel McCrea playing John Lloyd Sullivan, who is a top-grossing maker of escapist Hollywood comedies. He has assumed the identity of an unemployed and homeless worker in order to find out how the “other half” lives. The end result of his research will be “socially aware” film that lives up to the Daily Worker’s expectations. Veronica Lake is a struggling actress who takes pity on him. Listen carefully to their dialog. Lubitsch’s name comes up.

Sullivan’s working title for his new leftist movie is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Does that ring a bell? It should. That’s the title of a Coen brothers comedy starring George Clooney in a 1930s prison escape tale based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey. Although Sturges was just as cynical in his own way about society as the Coen brothers, you always rooted for his characters.

In my review of the Coens’ “A Serious Man”, I referred to them and Preston Sturges:

In some ways, “A Serious Man” demonstrates all the flaws of the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey. Without the grandeur of Homer’s characters, all you end up with is a kind of road movie that requires the talent of a Preston Sturges to pull off. Without a finely honed sense of comedy, the best that Coen brothers can come up with is characters that they can feel superior to while hoping that the audience can share the joke. In Preston Sturges’s Depression-era comedies, you cheer for the characters. Set in the same historical period, the characters of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” are involved with what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls pop nihilism.

Finally, to remind you of what Shakespeare is about (any comparison between him and David O. Russell should be punishable by a mandatory prison sentence of 5 years), check the excerpt above from the 1935 Hollywood production of “Midsummer’s Night Dream” directed by Max Reinhardt that I reviewed in December 2010. I wrote:

This 1935 movie was the only one that Max Reinhardt would ever make. Born in 1873 to orthodox Austrian Jewish parents with the surname Goldmann, he became one of Europe’s most respected stage directors. He had a special affinity for “Midsummer’s Night Dream”, staging a wildly popular version in 1927. After the Anschluss in Austria, he would leave the country for good and settle in Los Angeles, like many other refugees from Nazism. He staged a version of the play at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934, using some of the same actors who would appear in the movie, including Mickey Rooney and Olivia De Havilland. When the movie was released to theaters, the Germans banned it because the director was a Jew and because the film used Felix Mendelssohn’s (another Jew) score.

As a stage director, Max Reinhardt would hire Ernst Lubitsch, a fellow Jew, in 1911 as one of his actors. One imagines that the “Lubitsch touch” was influenced by what he learned from Reinhardt. By 1918 he began directing films.

If you leave David O. Russell out of the equation, a much more rewarding research topic would be the parallels between Shakespeare, Lubitsch and Sturges. Perhaps the humanism of Shakespeare’s plays and the effervescence of Lubitsch and Sturges’s film comedies belong to a different epoch and matter less to someone at the NYU or UCLA film schools. But for me, they will always be the gold standard.

January 16, 2014

Zizek and Abercrombie-Fitch

Filed under: Zizek — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm

Slavoj Zizek

Zizek’s client


That Time Zizek Wrote for Abercrombie & Fitch

March 19th, 2013  |  by Eugene. Published in Theory and Theorists

Slovenian critical theorist Slavoj Zizek isn’t always spending his spare time marrying Argentine models or psychoanalyzing toilets. Back in the day, the philosopher also found time to write ads in Abercrombie & Fitch’s “Back to School” catalog.

At one point, Abercrombie & Fitch was trying to appeal to 14-year-old douchebags by publishing soft core porn under the auspices of product catalogs. At another point, Abercrombie & Fitch decided to try a permutation of softcore porn and Slavoj Zizek’s rambling. The results are amazing.

A PDF of the catalog was spotted on The New Yorker today. The full catalog is available for free here (NSFW).

NY Times June 17, 2003
Clothing Chain Accused of Discrimination

Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer that appeals to the college set with blond-haired, blue-eyed models, was sued yesterday for racial discrimination, accused of favoring whites for its sales floor jobs.

The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in San Francisco, charges that Abercrombie discriminates against Hispanics, Asians and blacks in its hiring as it seeks to project what the company calls the “classic American” look.


Poseurs Paradise! What’s it really like to work at the new Abercrombie & Fitch store?

Two young, shirtless men in low-slung jeans greet you at the door. Disco music pounds out, the air is full of a sickly sweet scent and it is so dark, customers get lost and panic. This is shopping Abercrombie & Fitch style. Savile Row will never be the same.

I’ve been working undercover there after I took a job as an in-store model at the multi-billion dollar U.S. clothing company’s new London store – their first venture into Europe.

My aim was to report from the inside. It happened by chance. You don’t see many Canadian woman in turquoise wellies on public transport in London, so I had already noticed the store’s talent scout when she noticed me, at a London Tube station. I was curious. So was she.

“You’ve got just the right look to come and work for Abercrombie & Fitch” she told me. I was taken aback, flattered, but had no idea what she meant.

“Fantastic” I replied. Abercrombie & Fitch? The name rang a bell. Shortbread? Why would a biscuit firm want to employ me?

She explained that Abercrombie & Fitch was a clothing store and that they were hiring “models”

to “just hang out” around the shop, wearing the company’s clothing.

The penny dropped. I’d seen those risque; posters of a muscular man with a builder’s bottom adorning London buses. I knew this homoerotic campaign has caused a stir.

This, I realised, was the American chain whose use of blatant sex to market their U.S. preppy style has attracted critics as well as custom. They promise a store full of “gorgeous kids”.

Why calling for “diplomatic solutions” stabs the Syrian Revolution in the back

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:34 am

A guest post by Andrew Pollack

Why calling for “diplomatic solutions” stabs the Syrian Revolution in the back

January 15, 2014 at 4:58pm

On January 14th came reports of the conclusion of a two-day UN-sponsored conference attended by a self-selected group of women discussing how to increase female participation at the proposed Geneva II conference and its aftermath. Nowhere in the statements coming out of the event was there any indication that those seeking to achieve greater gender balance in Geneva have any problem with its core mission: to let imperialist powers dictate “peace” terms to Syrian revolutionaries.

This “women’s” event comes amid a welter of proposals for negotiations, diplomatic solutions, ceasefires, etc., etc. by various liberal and pseudoradical forces. Many of those involved have been around the block and know what brand of snake oil they’re peddling. Newer forces less aware of the long history of such sell-outs may sincerely think that by demanding negotiations or diplomatic solutions they are aiding the Syrian Revolution. But in fact these calls for “talks” and “peace” are helping the imperialists, whether in Washington or Moscow, to stab it in the back. They deny the self-determination of the Syrian people – the only ones who have a legitimate right to say what a just resolution of the Revolution should be, the only ones with the right to define what liberation means for them. And they insult the steadfastness of the Syrian people, who despite horrific casualties, starvation, torture and genocidal murder, show no signs of abandoning their Revolution.

None of the politicians, whether in Moscow or Washington, Beijing or Tehran, Riyadh or Beirut have any business dictating terms to the Syrian people, or even demanding they come to the table. In any case the overwhelming majority of grassroots forces in the Revolution have made clear that they see Geneva for the farce it is. They have expressed in no uncertain terms that not only will they not talk to Assad, but that they resent and reject the imperialists’ likely attempt to impose a Yemen-style solution, i.e. to maintain he current regime minus Assad.

Calling for talks or “peace” is calling for maintenance of that regime, for an end to the Syrian people’s just struggle for bread, freedom, dignity and social justice.

Below I’ll look at some statements by those pushing Geneva (or an “improved” Geneva). Then I cite briefly some parallel debates from the movement against the US war in Vietnam, and from discussions among Bolsheviks heading the new Soviet Republic who had to grapple with similar issues when under attack after the revolution’s success.

A November 28, 2013 article (“Opposition Activists in Damascus Give Views on Peaceful Solution,” https://www.adoptrevolution.org/en/opposition-activists-on-peaceful-solution/ ) quotes Kifah Ali Deeb, a member of the executive office of the National Coordination Board for Democratic Change, saying she “is confident about a peaceful solution to end the crisis. “[This can be achieved through] an end to the violence, releasing prisoners, and negotiations in Geneva on a peaceful transfer of power to a transitional government with full powers.”

Geneva I, she said “didn’t fail. It produced a set of recommendations that we can build on for Geneva II in order to reach a political solution that will lead to a transfer of power. This will achieve the demands of the people for freedom, dignity, and democracy,” she said.”

Deeb’s group, the NCBDC, has been roundly criticized by revolutionaries from the beginning of the Revolution for attempting to cut deals with the regime and advocating direct talks with it. The groups making up the Coordination Board seem to be left-over pro-Moscow or pro-Beijing Stalinist parties, whose stock in trade has for decades been class collaboration, i.e. deals for “peace” whether in the international or domestic spheres.

Deeb is clearly operating in this framework. She hails the fact that all permanent members of the UN Security Council attended Geneva I, and praises their 12 point plan, “the most important elements of which were the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers which would include officials from the current Syrian government, reform of the constitution, ensuring the continuity of public services and agencies, including the army and security services, and stopping the bloodshed.”

Officials from the current government? Continuity of the army and security services? Clearly Deeb has no interest in advocating for what the Syrian grassroots is actually fighting for.

The same article quotes “political activist and lawyer Faeq Howeija, a member of the Syrian Secular Democratic Coalition,” as saying that Geneva II can succeed and a “political solution” be found “once the two sides genuinely feel that they cannot continue with a military confrontation.” So while those who face the bullets of Assad and the Islamists call for greater military and other aid to complete the revolution against all counterrevolutionary forces, Howeija and his ilk call for “peace.”

Some Palestine solidarity activists are also calling for “diplomatic solutions,” this despite their longstanding and correct rejection of similar efforts by imperialists to force the “peace process” with Israel down their throats. (Although perhaps this hypocrisy tells us something about their rejection of that “peace process”: for some of them, it may just be a question of wanting “better” parties at the table, i.e. a hope that a “left” faction of the PLO, after achieving hegemony in the mass movement, could push aside Fateh as lead negotiator and come up with a “more just” peace.)

Meanwhile the “Anti-imperialist Camp,” a gaggle of groups which seem to come from the same neo-Stalinist milieu as the NCBDC, is pushing a shadow conference in Vienna to happen during Geneva II – while still supporting the latter. They do so because they – unlike the masses in Syria – have given up hope in the Revolution (one would certainly want to check statements of this Camp and its constituent groups to see if they ever supported the Revolution).

The Camp launched an “International Peace Initiative for Syria” months ago, seeking signatures of left celebrities on behalf of peace and love in Syria. Now they are organizing an “all sides’ civil society conference in Vienna.” (www.antiimperialista.org/all_sides_syrian_conference )

“Every day,” they warn us, “it becomes clearer that the Syrian war cannot be won by anybody with a positive outcome for the Syrian people. With its internal divisions on every side the civil war has reached the state of an unprecedented bloodshed increased by external interventions. Its continuation will only wreak havoc and spread destruction on all levels of society.

“Among its main victims there are the democratic rights of the Syrian people, who originally tried to claim these rights by launching a peaceful popular mass protest movement. However their efforts have gradually been thwarted by an increasing influence of sectarian tendencies as well as a growing regional and global involvement.”

So their counsel to the Syrian masses – who show no sign of sharing their defeatism, and who are in fact turning the tide against one pole of the counterrevolution, i.e. ISIS and its ilk – is surrender:

“Together with many people inside Syria and across the world our initiative for Peace in Syria continues to insist (see initial call http://www.peaceinsyria.org/mission.html ) that the only viable solution is a political settlement with a ceasefire paving the way to a transitional government, based on a power sharing agreement between the socio-political, confessional and ethnical blocs maintaining a common State. We are conscious that this is not the ideal solution for any side, and therefore it will be difficult for all sides to accept. Yet a political solution is the only way out, because the continuation of the war will be even worse.”

And they praise imperialist powers for sharing their crocodile tears and proposing a way out: “Internationally, most of the involved players have now come to the conclusion that a political settlement is necessary to stop the number of victims from growing. This is being shown also by the recent agreement between the USA and Iran which provides a framework for the upcoming Geneva II talks.”

But so as not to be completely confused with their imperialist inspirers, they propose a parallel confab in Vienna: “… most of the Syrian people, who – while starving – continue to strive for their democratic and social rights, have lost their voice within the diplomatic efforts which are being made on the level of States. There is an urgent need to let them speak and allow their voices to be heard while important parts of the international community engage in power brokering ignoring the interest of the people on the ground.

“As an International Initiative of civil society, we are proposing to hold a conference in Vienna, Austria, with renowned figures of the Syrian civil society from all walks of life and associated with all sides of the conflict, in order to explore possible and realistic ways for achieving a democratic transition acceptable to the vast majority of Syrians. For this proposal, we have received positive signals from across the whole political spectrum of Syria.”

And just so no-one is misled into thinking that they’re trying to replace Geneva, they stress that “Whilst we hope that Geneva II will get off the ground, we strongly believe that the Vienna conference is a necessary complement to it. There is a real need to lend a voice to those who will have no say at the negotiation table, because they are not State-actors or representatives of political organisations. Furthermore any ceasefire agreement will need strong popular support from below. [That is, they want to help the imperialists force an agreement on the revolting masses.] This is needed whether Geneva will yield results or not.”

The UN-sponsored women’s conference mentioned at the start took a similar approach to trying  to “improve” Geneva II, declaring that “The voice of Syrian women must be heard in all efforts to resolve the civil war that is tearing their country apart.” ) http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=46916&Cr=Syria&Cr1=#.UtbSObSpfdU )

Needless to say the conference took no position on who was responsible for the bloodshed and violence, the oppression and exploitation, which sparked the Revolution. Instead, the 50 gathered women (the statement doesn’t say who picked them and how), called for a solution that would urge greater women’s participation in the country’s political and social life (something Assad would assure them he had already achieved). They were motivated by the same horror of suffering – again, without attributing responsibility or blame – as expressed by those quoted above: “We have come together to prepare this set of demands and priorities based on our first-hand experience of the suffering of the Syrian people, which has become intolerable.” And on this basis they too recommended surrender, “calling for an immediate cessation of armed violence.”

They go on to list specific proposals for women’s participation in various negotiating, transition, constitutional and other processes. Not a word about the Revolution’s demands. In fact they characterize the fighting as a “conflict [which] erupted almost three years ago between the Government and various groups seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad,” as if they didn’t know – or dare not voice – what revolutionaries are fighting for.

Of course this is about what one would expect from a body whose Secretary-General just got done heaping praise on deceased mass murderer Ariel Sharon, and whose main purpose has always been as a pacifist cover for imperialism.

Finally by way of examples we cite Code Pink, which weighed in long ago along exactly the same lines. The presumption, the violation of self-determination, the denial of the existence of the Revolution are too self-evident in its statement to need dissection here:


In contrast to the above approaches we must stress that our task now is greater support for the revolution, not efforts to force it into submission or surrender.

It’s not our business to pressure revolutionaries to go to the table; our job is to support them materially and politically against all forms of counterrevolution domestic or foreign.

That was the approach of revolutionaries in the US and other imperialist countries during the US war against Vietnam. While the Communist Party in the US and their co-thinkers were pushing for a negotiated “solution,” for support for peace talks, Trotskyists and radical pacifists said we in the US had no right to add to the pressure on the Vietnamese to submit, that our job was to get our government to stop committing and aiding genocide, to pull out completely and immediately.

These genuine radicals added that if the Vietnamese felt compelled to go to the table, whether out of weakness or for tactical propagandistic purposes, that was their business and their right. But by letting up for one second in the slightest degree the call for “Out Now!”, we would in fact be weakening the Vietnamese efforts to navigate their way through those thickets, and more fundamentally would be violating their right to self-determination.

As Nat Weinstein wrote: ( http://www.socialistviewpoint.org/may_04/may_04_01.html )

“From the very first, however, there was a small section of the Vietnam antiwar movement that rejected the slogan, ‘Negotiations Now!’ simply because it implied that the United States had the right to set limits on the Vietnamese people’s right to self-determination. What proved to be the most effective section of the Vietnam antiwar movement had rejected the ‘Negotiate Now!’ slogan from the outset because it gave credence to the ‘right’ of American imperialism to send the world’s most powerful military behemoth into Vietnam to suppress the struggle of the Vietnamese workers and poor farmers for self-determination. And as the war dragged on and tens of thousands of body bags had already been shipped home, the ‘Bring The Troops Home Now!’ demand began winning the support of millions…”

A 1969 resolution of the then still healthy US Socialist Workers Party explained why the imperialists wanted talks in the first place: “The central problem facing U.S. imperialism in attempting to win the kind of settlement it wants is control of the state power in Vietnam, which depends in the last analysis on force of arms. Without the massive military might of U.S. imperialism, the Saigon regime would rapidly collapse. This fact shows the fraudulent nature of all the well-publicized Washington schemes for a settlement: the scheme of turning the war over to Saigon; the scheme of a coalition government; the scheme of elections under the Saigon administration. So long as the Vietnamese revolutionaries refuse to give up their arms and continue to carry on the fight a U.S. withdrawal will lead to rapid victory over the Saigon regime. Under these conditions, a ‘compromise’ formula that does not settle the question of state power will remain illusory. The war can end only when one side is defeated; and until that happens, either on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, the war will go on…” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/education/anti-war/part6.htm )

The same can be said of Syria: the imperialists want talks above all because they want to ensure that the question of state power is settled in favor of the existing regime or some armed body like it, and not in favor of the Syrian masses.

Finally, some quotes from the parallel Soviet debate. After the Revolution, the new power was faced with invasion from imperialist powers on both sides of World War I. The Bolshevik government sent representatives to talks with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk, and had to encounter dissent within Party ranks about whether such talks were an impermissible compromise.

Lenin’s answer (not heeded at first, by the way, in what was then an incredibly democratic party used to stormy, vibrant debate), was that the new Republic had no choice but to negotiate, especially as to survive until aid could come from successful revolutions elsewhere – BUT that while the Soviets were under the gun, that made it MORE urgent for revolutionaries in other countries to oppose efforts by their own governments to dictate terms or even to presume there was anything to talk about. To use the same terms as in the Vietnam debate, the Bolsheviks could justify going to the table, but communists in Germany, England, France, etc. had no business calling for talks: their duty was to tell their own governments to simply get the hell out of the Soviet Union — and while doing so, to try to make their own revolution at home.

Lenin wrote (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch04.htm  ):

“Imagine that your car is held up by armed bandits. You hand them over your money, passport, revolver and car. In return you are rid of the pleasant company of the bandits. That is unquestionably a compromise. ‘Do ut des’ (I ‘give’ you money, fire-arms and a car ‘so that you give’ me the opportunity to get away from you with a whole skin). It would, however, be difficult to find a sane man who would declare such a compromise to be ‘inadmissible on principle,’ or who would call the compromiser an accomplice of the bandits (even though the bandits might use the car and the firearms for further robberies). Our compromise with the bandits of German imperialism was just that kind of compromise.

“But when, in 1914-18 and then in 1918-20, the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries in Russia, the Scheidemannites (and to a large extent the Kautskyites) in Germany, Otto Bauer and Friedrich Adler (to say nothing of the Renners and Co.) in Austria, the Renaudels and Longuets and Co. in France, the Fabians, the Independents and the Labourites in Britain entered into compromises with the bandits of their own bourgeoisie, and sometimes of the ‘Allied’ bourgeoisie, and against the revolutionary proletariat of their own countries, all these gentlemen were actually acting as accomplices in banditry.”

Again, Lenin explains why those under attack might feel pressured to seek a deal (http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/jan/07.htm ):

“Workers who lose a strike and sign terms for the resumption of work which are unfavourable to them and favourable to the capitalists, do not betray socialism. The only people who betray socialism are those who secure advantages for a section of the workers in exchange for profit to the capitalists; only such agreements are impermissible in principle…

“He does not in the least betray socialism who, without concealing anything from the people, and without concluding any secret treaties with the imperialists, agrees to sign terms of peace which are unfavourable to the weak nation and favourable to the imperialists of one group, if at that moment there is no strength to continue the war.”

That, however, is not what is happening around Geneva. Here supposed “friends” of the Syrian people are trying to drag supposed opponents of the regime to the table when the real revolutionaries have NOT yet declared the strike over (to use Lenin’s trade union example), are not yet ready to resume work under their exploiters.

What’s more, the Bolsheviks used to the fullest the opportunity of talks to state their case, and that of the global revolution, to all listening around the world – something which we can be sure won’t be the case with whatever craven “opposition” ends up at Geneva. Thus Leon Trotsky, in a public declaration issued to the peoples of the whole world, declared (http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/02/peace.htm ):

“We must open negotiations with those governments which at present exist. However, we are conducting these negotiations in a way affording the public the fullest possibility of controlling the crimes of their governments, and so as to accelerate the rising of the working masses against the imperialist cliques. We are ready to support this uprising with all the forces at our command.” In other words, as had Lenin, Trotsky was telling fellow revolutionaries elsewhere: “Don’t worry about what we may have to do at the negotiating table. The best aid you can give us is to make your own revolution, to rise up against your own government.”

That is certainly advice well-worth heeding in every country, including the US, which is suffering the same ravages of a capitalist system in decline and the resulting attempts by its masters to use whatever draconian measures are needed to pile the costs of that decline onto the backs of the world’s workers. That, after all, was exactly why the Syrian people revolted in the first place, and why they are determined to see their Revolution through to the end.

Postscript: While looking for the above quotes I came across the passage below, which sheds additional light on the debate within the ranks of those who support the Syrian Revolution about from whom and under what conditions it is acceptable to accept aid from imperialist bandits. In his biography of Lenin, Tony Cliff writes (http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1978/lenin3/ch04.html ):

“On 22 February Trotsky reported to the Central Committee an offer by France and Britain to give military aid to Russia in a war against Germany. The majority of the ‘Left Communists’ were opposed in principle to accepting: aid from such imperialist quarters. Trotsky came out clearly in favour of accepting aid, from whatever source. ‘The “Left Communists” arguments do not stand up to criticism. The state is forced to do what the party would not do. Of course the imperialists want to take advantage of us and if we are weak, they will do so; if we are strong, we will not allow it.’

‘As the party of the socialist proletariat which is in power and conducting a war against Germany, we mobilize every means to arm and supply our revolutionary army in the best way possible with all necessary resources and, for that purpose, we obtain them where we can, including therefore from capitalist governments. In doing this, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party retains full independence in its external policy, gives no political undertakings to capitalist governments and examines their proposals in each separate case according to what is expedient.’

Cliff continues: “Lenin, who had not been present at the meeting of the Central Committee, added the following statement to the minutes of the session: ‘Please add my vote in favour of taking potatoes and weapons from the Anglo-French imperialist robbers.’

“To explain his readiness to use the conflict between the imperialist powers in the interests of the proletariat in power, Lenin wrote, on 22 February, an article entitled “The Itch”:

“’Let us suppose Kaliaev, in order to kill a tyrant and monster, acquires a revolver from an absolute villain, a scoundrel and robber, by promising him bread, money and vodka for the service rendered.

‘Can one condemn Kaliaev for ‘dealing with a robber’ for the sake of obtaining a deadly weapon? Every sensible person will answer ‘no’. If there is nowhere else for Kaliaev to get a revolver, and if his intention is really an honourable one (the killing of a tyrant, not killing for plunder), then he should not be reproached but commended for acquiring a revolver in this way. But if a robber, in order to commit murder for the sake of plunder, acquires a revolver from another robber in return for money, vodka or bread, can one compare (not to speak of identifying) such a ‘deal with a robber’ with the deal made by Kaliaev?’

“In a postscript to the article, Lenin added:

‘The North Americans in their war of liberation against England at the end of the eighteenth century got help from Spain and France, who were her competitors and just as much colonial robbers as England. It is said that there were ‘Left Bolsheviks’ to be found who contemplated writing a ‘learned work’ on the ‘dirty deal’ of these Americans.’

“In the end, however, nothing came of the offer of aid from Britain and France.”

Andrew Pollack, 1/15/2014


January 15, 2014

Scenes from my childhood

Filed under: humor — louisproyect @ 1:37 pm

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