Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2014

Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:15 am

NY Times, June 18 2014

Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead


Horace Silver in 1997. Credit Alan Nahigian

Horace Silver, a pianist, composer and bandleader who was one of the most popular and influential jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Wednesday at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 85.

His death was announced by Blue Note Records, the company for which he recorded from 1952 to 1979.

After a high-profile apprenticeship with some of the biggest names in jazz, Mr. Silver began leading his own group in the mid-1950s and quickly became a big name himself, celebrated for his clever compositions and his infectious, bluesy playing. At a time when the refined, quiet and, to some, bloodless style known as cool jazz was all the rage, he was hailed as a leader of the back-to-basics movement that came to be called hard bop.

Hard bop and cool jazz shared a pedigree: They were both variations on bebop, the challenging, harmonically intricate music that changed the face of jazz in the 1940s. But hard bop was simpler and more rhythmically driven, with more emphasis on jazz’s blues and gospel roots. The jazz press tended to portray the adherents of cool jazz (most of them West Coast-based and white) and hard bop (most of them East Coast-based and black) as warring factions. But Mr. Silver made an unlikely warrior.


His albums included “Song for My Father,” which featured his father on the cover. Credit Blue Note Records

“I personally do not believe in politics, hatred or anger in my musical composition,” he wrote in the liner notes to his album “Serenade to a Soul Sister” in 1968. “Musical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.”

And Mr. Silver’s music was never as one-dimensional as it was sometimes portrayed as being. In an interview early in his career he said he was aiming for “that old-time gutbucket barroom feeling with just a taste of the backbeat.” That approach was reflected in the titles he gave to songs, like “Sister Sadie,” “Filthy McNasty” and “The Preacher,” all of which became jazz standards. But his output also included gently melodic numbers like “Peace” and “Melancholy Mood” and Latin-inflected tunes like “Señor Blues.” “Song for My Father,” probably his best-known composition, blended elements of bossa nova and the Afro-Portuguese music of the Cape Verde islands, where his father was born.

His piano playing, like his compositions, was not that easily characterized. Deftly improvising ingenious figures with his right hand while punching out rumbling bass lines with his left, he managed to evoke boogie-woogie pianists like Meade Lux Lewis and beboppers like Bud Powell simultaneously. Unlike many bebop pianists, however, Mr. Silver emphasized melodic simplicity over harmonic complexity; his improvisations, while sophisticated, were never so intricate as to be inaccessible.

Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver was born on Sept. 2, 1928, in Norwalk, Conn. His father, who was born John Silva but changed the family name to the more American-sounding Silver after immigrating to the United States, worked in a rubber factory. His mother, Gertrude, was a maid and sang in a church choir.

Although he studied piano as a child, Mr. Silver began his professional career as a saxophonist. But he had returned to the piano, and was becoming well known as a jazz pianist in Connecticut, by the time the saxophonist Stan Getz — soon to be celebrated as one of the leading lights of the cool school — heard and hired him in 1950.

“I had the house rhythm section at a club called the Sundown in Hartford,” Mr. Silver told The New York Times in 1981. “Stan Getz came up and played with us. He said he was going to call us, but we didn’t take him seriously. But a couple of weeks later he called and said he wanted the whole trio to join him.”

Mr. Silver worked briefly with Getz before moving to New York in 1951. He was soon in demand as an accompanist, working with leading jazz musicians like the saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. In 1953, Mr. Silver and the drummer Art Blakey formed a cooperative group, the Jazz Messengers, whose aggressive style helped define hard bop and whose lineup of trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums became the standard hard-bop instrumentation.

After two and a half years, during which Mr. Silver began his long and prolific association with Blue Note, he left the Jazz Messengers, which carried on with Blakey as the sole leader, and formed his own quintet. It became a showcase for his compositions.


Another album by Mr. Silver is “Further Explorations by the Horace Silver Quintet.” Credit Blue Note Records

Those compositions, beginning with “The Preacher” in 1955 — which his producer, Alfred Lion of Blue Note, had tried to discourage him from recording because he considered it too simplistic — captured the ears of a wide audience. Many were released as singles and garnered significant jukebox play. By the early ’60s Mr. Silver’s quintet was one of the most popular nightclub and concert attractions in jazz, and an inspiration for countless other bandleaders.

Like Blakey, Miles Davis (with whom he recorded) and a few others, Mr. Silver was known for discovering and nurturing young talent, including the saxophonists Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker; the trumpeters Art Farmer, Woody Shaw, Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas; and the drummers Louis Hayes and Billy Cobham. His longest-lived ensemble, which lasted about five years in the late 1950s and early ’60s, featured Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Junior Cook on tenor saxophone.

As interest in jazz declined in the ’70s, Mr. Silver disbanded his quintet and began concentrating on writing lyrics as well as music, notably on a three-album series called “The United States of Mind,” his first album to feature vocalists extensively. He later resumed touring, but only for a few months each year, essentially assembling a new group each time he went on the road.

“I’m shooting for longevity,” he explained. “The road is hard on your body. I’m trying to get it all over with in four months and then recoup.” He said he also wanted to spend more time with his son, Gregory, who survives him.

In 1981, Mr. Silver formed his own label, Silveto. His recordings for that label featured vocalists and were largely devoted to what he called “self-help holistic metaphysical music” — life lessons in song with titles like “Reaching Our Goals in Life” and “Don’t Dwell on Your Problems” that left critics for the most part unimpressed.

Jon Pareles of The Times wrote in 1986 that Mr. Silver’s “naïvely mystical lyrics” made his new compositions sound like “near-miss pop songs.” On later albums for Columbia, Impulse and Verve, Mr. Silver returned to a primarily instrumental approach.

Mr. Silver was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1995 and received a President’s Merit Award from the Recording Academy in 2005.

Many of his tunes became staples of the jazz repertoire — a development, he said, that surprised him. “When I wrote them,” he said in a 2003 interview for the website All About Jazz, “I would say to myself that I hope these at least withstand the test of time. I hope they don’t sound old in 10 years or something.”

Rather than sounding dated, his compositions continued to be widely performed and recorded well into the 21st century. And while he acknowledged that “occasionally I hear an interpretation of one of my tunes that I say that they sure messed that one up,” he admitted, “For the most part I enjoy all of it.”

June 18, 2014

An Obama-Al Qaeda axis against Syria and Iran? Really?

Filed under: Iraq,Jihadists,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

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On November 8th 2013, an article of mine titled “Why Obama Did Not Make War on Syria” appeared on CounterPunch. I imagine it was this kind of article that would incite email complaints recently to the good folks at CounterPunch along these lines as I learned from them:

Another violent message regarding “crypto zionist” Louis Proyect who deserves to be stabbed in the neck. He seems to incite these sorts of messages.

Likely the same individual wrote a comment on my blog as “killudeadkike”: “Louis Proyect = cypto-Zionist faggot White Nationalist.”

I suppose if I had been writing the same idiotic article as everybody else in 2013 about how Obama was preparing to invade Syria as stage one in a war on Iran, I wouldn’t be getting hate mail. But I’d rather get hate mail than write stupid bullshit like this:

Obama is hypocritically invoking international law to justify the escalation of a war that Washington has pursued in large measure through terrorist bombings carried out by its proxy forces in Syria. The operational alliance between the US and Al Qaeda underscores the criminal character of US foreign policy and the political fraud of the so-called “war on terror.”

That’s from the World Socialist Website. (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/05/01/syri-m01.html) If you do a search on “Syria” and “al Qaeda” there, you will find 71 articles all making the same point, as if American imperialism was in cahoots with Islamic fundamentalists.

These sorts of people made every effort to link the FSA to jihadists even as it was becoming clearer that they were mortal enemies. ISIS first gained a foothold in Raqqa, a city that had been liberated by the FSA and then fell to jihadist control.

A New Yorker magazine article described the tension that existed from the outset. Ironically, the jihadists were with the Jabhat al-Nusra front who would be superseded by the even more reactionary ISIS fighters. It was written exactly a month before the idiotic WSWS.org article appeared. Any socialist website that was reporting on Syria should have had an obligation to be aware of what was going on in Raqqa unless of course your only goal is to write cheap propaganda. The article titled “A Black Flag in Raqqa” describes a tense situation:

“There is no moderate Islam or extremist Islam,” the Jabhat member said calmly. “There is only Islam, and Islam is under attack in the West regardless of whether or not we hoist the banner. Do you think they’re waiting for that banner to hit us?” he said.

Abu Mohammad, an older man in a tan leather jacket and a white galabia (a loose, floor-length robe), interjected: “What we’re saying is, put the flag above your outposts, not in the main square of the city. We all pray, we all say, ‘There is no god but God,’ but I will not raise this flag.”

“This is an insult to people who died for the revolutionary flag,” said Abu Abdullah, a former English major at the university.

Some pundits are now attacking Obama for not having backed the “moderate” opposition in the FSA as if the USA ever had any interest in seeing a mass movement of Syrian “hicks” who had gotten pissed off at neo-liberalism running the government. Unlike most people content to write propaganda, I made a real effort to understand what the Syrian opposition stood for. That included a trip to Washington in September 2012 to cover a major rally in support of the revolution. You would think from reading the WSWS.org crapola that Senator McCain would be the featured speaker. Instead the people who spoke had a lot more in common with those who protested the invasion of Iraq, including the keynote speaker Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian professor from the U. of California. As I wrote at the time:

At San Francisco State University in the late 1980s, Bazian became the first Palestinian to be elected president of SFSU Associated Students and the Student Union Governing Board. He was the first student to win a second term as president in the history of SFSU. The election came as a result of a united front formed under the Progressive Coalition that brought together all the students of color organizations on a common platform and a joint political strategy.

At the national conference United States Student Association (USSA) held at UC Berkeley in 1988, Bazian co-lead a major walk-out that culminated in the organization adopting a progressive board of directors structure granting by a 2/3 vote at least 50% of the Seats to Students of Color.

Bazian was elected as a Chair of the National People of Color Student Coalition (NPCSC) and an executive board member of the USSA. In both, he took the lead on affirmative action, access to education, anti-apartheid efforts on college campuses, and the Central American Solidarity Movement. He authored resolutions, which were adopted by the USSA national conference in 1991 calling for cutting US aid to Israel and imposing sanctions for its sales of military equipment to apartheid South Africa.

But none of this would matter to the “anti-imperialist” propagandists. They were determined to paint the opposition to Bashar al-Assad as equivalent to the Afghan rebels that Reagan supported. They had persuaded themselves that Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi were on the front lines resisting imperialism like the Vietnamese in the 1960s but with Putin’s Russia serving the same role as the former Soviet Union. So what if this was a fantasy. When you are in the business of writing propaganda, the truth should not get in the way.

At the very time articles about Obama’s war on Syria and Iran spearheaded by jihadists were reaching a crescendo during Obama’s “red line” bluster, the NY Times reported that his administration had begun to tilt toward Syria and Iran:

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

“Whether they are dismayed by the way things played out in Egypt or by the growth of Al Qaeda in Syria, the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American foreign policy makers,” said William McCants, an expert on jihadist movements and a former senior adviser at the State Department. “It seems we are back to counterterrorism as a guiding focus for American policy.”

As we now know, the rapid progress made by ISIS in Iraq had drawn the USA and Iran even closer. The USA has reintroduced boots on the ground in Iraq for no other reason than to defend the Shi’ite government from jihadists. There is every likelihood that this is the first step in an escalating violence that could include drone strikes and aerial bombardment. Of course, if you had been paying close attention to Syria from the beginning, this eventuality would have been predictable as the LA Times reported on March 15, 2013:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Of course none of this registered on those who were predicting World War Three with the US Marines and al-Qaeda leading a joint attack on Syria and Iran as if it were a reenactment of “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Believe it or not, there are still some benighted souls who still believe this fiction, most egregiously Mike Whitney who is far more knowledgeable about the American economy (even when he is wrong) than he is about the Middle East.

In a rather febrile article titled “The ISIS Fiasco: It’s Really an Attack on Iran” on today’s CounterPunch, he tries to convince his readers that Iran remains the main target.

Whitney wonders why ISIS is running wild in Iraq. The answer must be that Obama is secretly pulling their strings:

When was the last time an acting president failed to respond immediately and forcefully to a similar act of aggression?

Never. The US always responds. And the pattern is always the same. “Stop what you are doing now or we’re going to bomb you to smithereens.” Isn’t that the typical response?

Sure it is. But Obama delivered no such threat this time. Instead, he’s qualified his support for al-Maliki saying that the beleaguered president must “begin accommodating Sunni participation in his government” before the US will lend a hand. What kind of lame response is that?

Now I would not want to ascribe motives to Whitney of the sort that I have had to endure from people like “killudeadkike” but I wonder if this means he would have been assuaged by a few drone strikes here and there against the terrorists instead of just a “lame response”. But then again, I have to remind myself that Whitney is a man of peace (except when it comes to the well-placed barrel bomb of course.)

The only conclusion that Whitney can draw is that the US is secretly backing ISIS in order to pressure Maliki into including more Sunnis into his government rather than marginalizing them, a policy that everybody still connected to reality understands is the cause of the revolt in Mosul.

Although I have some major differences with Patrick Cockburn, I think he is more reliable on the topic of Sunni resistance than Mike Whitney:

In December 2012 the arrest of the bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, by the government led to widespread but peaceful protests in Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq, Sunni Arabs making up about a fifth of Iraq’s 33 million population. At first, the demonstrations were well-attended, with protesters demanding an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community. But soon they realised that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was offering only cosmetic changes and many stopped attending the weekly demonstrations.

Meanwhile, we’ll know soon enough whether the USA is secretly egging on jihadists against Shi’ite governments in the Middle East and Iran. We already know that drone strikes are continuing on a daily basis against Islamic radicals all around the planet so it would be remarkable if ISIS were to be spared especially when Iraq’s largest oil refinery is under attack. Some experts describe the war in Iraq as the “biggest petroleum heist in history”, a real calamity for its people:

That makes this the biggest petroleum heist in history. And we’re supposed to believe that the oil bigwigs didn’t know anything about this before the war? What a crock! I’ll bet you even money the CEOs and their lackeys figured out that Saudi Arabia was running out of gas, so they decided to pick up stakes and move their operations to good old Mesopotamia. That’s why they put their money on Bush and Cheney, because they knew that two former oil men would do the heavy lifting once they got shoehorned into the White House.

Oh, I almost forgot. The guy who wrote this article is none other than Mike Whitney.

June 17, 2014

Left Forum 2014 panel discussion on fracking

Filed under: fracking,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

This is the second in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Like most people on the left and particularly those with an ecosocialist orientation, I have been following the struggle over fracking quite closely. But I have an additional motivation. Sullivan County in upstate NY, where my tiny village of Woodridge growing up can be found, is a battleground over fracking drawing support from the Hollywood film star Mark Ruffalo who has a country house there.

If you grew up in the southern Catskill Mountains that extends through Sullivan County you will be familiar with the trout streams that were fed by melting snow from those mountains. Their names are legion: the Neversink, the Willowemac and Callicoon Creek. The Neversink was not just valuable for sport; it also feeds the Neversink Reservoir, one of NYC’s primary sources of exceptionally clean water.

When I was young, I used to swim in the Neversink in kind of natural pool underneath a tiny suspension bridge that was designed by John Roebling, the same engineer responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge. Although I stated in my article on Shamir that I have no use for the spiritual, that river is about as close to godlike as any I can think of. It was my Ganges.

The Croton Bridge (named after the company that built it in 1897)

The Riverkeeper Website is a good source of information on the threat posed by fracking:

The entire West-of-Hudson portion of the New York City Watershed (supplying 90% of drinking water to over half the state’s population) sits on top of part of the Marcellus Shale, a large mineral reserve deposit deep beneath the earth’s surface. Oil and gas companies have known about this shale reserve for decades, but the technology to extract natural gas from it has become available only recently. The Marcellus Shale spans across at least five states. To extract natural gas from the mineral reserve, oil companies plan to use a process called “hydraulic fracturing.”

“Fracking” involves injecting toxic chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water under high pressure directly into shale formations. This toxic brew, along with any natural gas, is then extracted, or leaked to the surface. Whether any toxic discharges will flow into New York City’s drinking water supply is uncertain.

I keep track of the fracking fight in my hometown newspapers, the Middletown Times-Record and the much smaller circulation Sullivan County Democrat, the newspaper my mom used to write for. Since the hotel industry went bust, Sullivan County has become one of the poorest counties in the state. As such, landowners—many of whom are impoverished farmers—are tempted to lease their land to an energy company. For the time being, Cuomo has suspended fracking but given his shitty politics, there’s some question how long that will last. The third speaker on the panel dealt with NY state issues.

A Middletown Times-Record video on the Neversink River:

The first speaker was Steve Horn, who you may know as the foremost journalist covering the fracking beat right now. I strongly suggest you bookmark his blog: http://www.desmogblog.com/blog/steve-horn

This article from the Middletown Times-Record should give you a sense of the sharp divisions in Sullivan County:

Emotions run high as fracking divides neighbors
Takes toll on communities

By Steve Israel

Times Herald-Record,  02/17/13

An anti-fracking hunter no longer hunts in the woods he’s trod for decades. He says he was made to feel so uncomfortable by the pro-fracking hunting friends who own the land, he just doesn’t feel like he’s wanted there.

A pro-fracking volunteer at a public radio station quits the station. She feels ostracized because of what she says is the anti-fracking atmosphere.

Then there’s the builder of second homes who’s potentially put hundreds of thousands of dollars of construction on hold in Sullivan County towns where fracking is a possibility. He’s waiting until the state finally decides whether the natural gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will be permitted.

The possibility of fracking – and all its explosive divisiveness – has insinuated itself so deeply into so many aspects of local life, the fabric of that life has been frayed.

That is the one thing both sides of the issue can agree on.

“Everything has become politicized,” says builder Charles Petersheim, who will not build his Catskill Farms homes in certain western Sullivan County towns until the state issues a decision on fracking.

“The grocery store, the town board, the chamber of commerce. And there’s no rest.”

“I don’t think anything has had the impact on the town as much as fracking,” says Town of Highland Supervisor Andy Boyar, whose Delaware River town banned fracking last summer.

“The residue, the hard feelings still exist and we need to heal.”

“It’s permeating other issues in ways we never would have predicted,” sums up former Sullivan West School District Superintendent Ken Hilton. When his district tried to sell one of its unused schools, the issue of whether to keep or sell the mineral rights for natural gas beneath school property became a point of contention.

No subject is immune

From real-estate values that anti-frackers say would plummet and pro-frackers say would soar, to farms that anti – and pro-frackers say would either be ruined or saved, the implications of fracking have, for many local residents, become as much a part of the daily conversation as the weather. And even that weather would be affected by fracking, say those against it, because of the polluting climate change they say fracking would cause.

But nowhere in the region is the reach of the fracking divide more obvious than the town, planning or zoning board meetings of Sullivan County that once attracted a handful of residents but now can be standing-room only whenever there’s a chance fracking might be discussed.

Take the recent public hearing on the proposed comprehensive plan – or blueprint for growth – in the western Sullivan Town of Callicoon. The plan includes a provision for gas drilling, which fracking opponents (and the county planning department) want removed and supporters want retained.

The steady flow of remarks to the Town Board by the standing-room-only crowd of more than 60 made it obvious that virtually every aspect of local life would be hurt or helped by fracking – depending, of course, how you felt about an “issue (that) can affect us all whether we want it or not,” said Nathan Swenberg.

“Are you really ready to gamble with our tax base, our health, our economy,” asked fracking opponent Jill Wiener, ticking off the areas of local life she said will be at risk if the town allows fracking.

The heart of local life

That’s why emotions always run high whenever this potential strand in the fabric of local life is mentioned as a possibility. It’s no exaggeration to say that for some, the debate over fracking gets at the heart of what local life is all about.

Those for it view it as the key to economic progress and livelihood in this county where the unemployment rate hit 10 percent in December.

Some struggling farmers “wait every day to see what New York is going to do,” says Callicoon Supervisor Tom Bose, who mentions a farmer raising cattle in nearby Broome County who’s waiting for gas drilling – and its royalties – to begin, to pay Bose the money he owes him.

But those against it say fracking and its industrial activity will ruin the lifeblood of Sullivan – its pristine water and pastoral land.

“I know people in the city who want to buy homes but won’t consider the area until this thing is resolved,” says Cristian Graca of Shalom Mountain Retreat in Livingston Manor.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the fracking debate has been on the community itself.

“A lot of people are unfriendly to one another,” said Earl Myers at that comprehensive plan meeting.

John Ebert, who supports fracking and the comprehensive plan, put it like this at that meeting when he said he spoke for “the silent majority of citizens in this township” and expressed a sentiment of the most vocal pro-frackers:

“We also have a minority group with a lot of mouth, money and misinformation to slow progressive progress in this township.”

‘You can be blacklisted’

In fact, fracking is so divisive, and so controversial, some choose not to express their real opinions about it for fear they – or their businesses – will be hurt. Others say longtime acquaintances with opposing views on fracking no longer speak to them because of how they feel.

“If you’re not part of the anti-fracking community, you can be blacklisted,” says Petersheim, expressing a sentiment many for fracking say. He’s spoken out against the legality of towns trying to zone out fracking, as well as the laws that are supposed to protect roads from fracking truck traffic, but, he says, would also hurt construction activity.

Bose agrees that folks for fracking often remain silent.

“We’ve seen contractors who can’t wait for this to happen, but they’re cautious in what they say because they don’t want to hurt their business,” he says.

And because whatever decision the state ultimately makes on fracking will bound to be appealed, the divisiveness in so many strands of the fabric of local life is likely to deepen.

That’s why Boyar – who mentions the cursing and obscene gestures he’s seen because of fracking – speaks not only for his town, but also for just about every area that’s been torn by the divisive issue.

“The town really has to go through a healing process.” he says. “It really does.”


June 16, 2014

Blood, spirit, the family, and soil: a response to Israel Shamir

Filed under: Jewish question,right-left convergence,Russia — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

US Jews are divided on the Ukraine, as they were divided on Palestine. Friends of Palestine, people with a strong anti-imperialist record and sound knowledge of East European history – Noam Chomsky and Stephen F. Cohen — recognised and renounced the US attempt to sustain their hegemony by keeping brazen Russia down. A subset of people, Gilad Atzmon aptly called AZZ (anti-zionist zionists), Trots and other faux-Leftist shills for NATO like Louis Proyect – called for American intervention and brayed for Russian blood.

That was a paragraph in an articled titled “The Fateful Triangle: Russia, Ukraine and the Jews”  from the inimitable Israel Shamir, a frequent contributor to what I would describe as the conspiracist sphere of the Internet. These are websites that see wicked plots everywhere and in Shamir’s case, those spun by Jews.

Israel Shamir

One of the most objectionable parts of Shamir’s paragraph was the reference to me as a “US Jew”. How in the world did I earn that designation? After getting bar mitzvahed in 1958, I stopped attending synagogue. I would have stopped sooner but I was under my observant father’s thumb. I guess that Shamir is referring to my “blood” but if that were the basis for his attribution, then I would claim to be Turkish rather than Jewish since I descend from the Khazars, a Turkic tribe that adopted Judaism in the 8th century AD mostly for economic reasons. But then there’s the question of where the Khazars came from. They were probably Mongols at some point and before that who knows? Not to put too fine a point on it, my “blood” probably can be traced back to the African sub-Saharan regions, where the rest of the human race comes from. For someone who is used to thinking in class terms and hopes for a worldwide socialist system in which national identity becomes as outdated as religion and other mystifications, it is jarring to encounter someone so deep into racial distinctions as Shamir. What an odd duck.

Beside the business about “blood”, Shamir also has a thing about “spirit”: “Communism won in the East – not because the East was backward, but because the East was the most spiritual part of the planet, less ruined by modernity and alienation.”

Gosh, it’s been a long time since I heard anybody blather on about the “spiritual”. Back in 1966, just before I joined the Trotskyist movement, I used to buy LSD from a neighbor in my Hoboken tenement who went on to become a top guy in the Hare Krishna movement. Eventually his old habits returned, as he became a coke addict and a gun nut. In “Monkey on a Stick”, a fine history of the Hare Krishnas, authors John Hubner and Lindsay Gruson describe my old supplier driving around downtown Berkeley blasting out the windows of car dealers with an M-16. And all along, even now, old Hans Dutta describes himself as very “spiritual”. As for me, I am having none of it.

If you can believe the Wikipedia entry on Shamir (much of it sounds like it was describing a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel), you’ll learn that he converted to Orthodox Christianity somewhere along the line. I wonder if this means that he goes to Church on Sunday morning. What a waste of time. Homer Simpson had that right. It is a much better use of your time to be watching football games on Sunday. I suspect his Orthodoxy shapes his views on the burning social questions of the day. Like Maoist cult leader Bob Avakian in the early 70s, Shamir doesn’t want the gays dividing the working class. He concluded that a French bill to legalize gay marriage and adoption bill amounted to a “neoliberal attack on the French family”. Frankly, I would vote for any bill that undermined the nuclear family but then again I am more influenced by Engels than the Holy Bible.

Some on the left are agitated by what they regard as Israel Shamir’s anti-Semitism. I tend not to worry so much about this since the Jews haven’t faced what they call an “existential threat” since the 1930s. For me, Shamir’s crude and stupid musings on world Jewry are much more of a social gaffe, akin to peeing on a toilet seat. I am disappointed to see so many people accepting him into polite society on the leftwing of the Internet, but maybe sitting down in someone’s pee doesn’t bother them so much.

Mostly, the people today who have the most to fear are immigrants not Jews, especially those of color who are being attacked by neo-Nazis throughout Europe. As a socialist, I support open borders. As long as capital is free to cross borders, so are workers. Plus, speaking as a New Yorker, this city would be a lot less interesting without the steady influx of immigrants. Shamir feels otherwise, killing two birds with one stone: “The middle-class Gay International (a term of Joseph Massad) is on the forefront of support for immigration: one can explain it by their compassion, but one can also explain it by their own interests of having a pool of cheap and available sexual partners.” Yes, that makes perfect sense. The Gay International needs more kids from El Salvador–desperately trying to survive–because its hunger for sex partners is insatiable. What amazing social commentary from the 21st century’s De Tocqueville.

So, we see a pattern developing. If anything, Shamir is consistent. First there is blood, and then there is spirit, followed by the sacrosanct family unit, and topped off by soil. Blood, spirit, the holy family, and soil: a potent combination and far preferable to the epicene and deracinated socialist doctrines that are eroding mankind.

One can understand the appeal of blood, spirit, the family and the soil to large sectors of the left. We are living in a period when the idea of joining forces between the left and the right is quite seductive. Ralph Nader has organized a conference in Washington that brings together his own brand of anti-globalization activism and those of the Rand Paul flavor. Somehow, this siren song is lost on me. I didn’t even resort to Odysseus’s trick of stuffing my ears with bee’s wax. I must have had some kind of genetic disposition against the siren song of a Rand Paul, a character whose bad hairdo and insistence that shopkeepers have the right to exclude Blacks is reason enough to hate him.

I suppose I should say a few words on the Shamir article itself and his accusation of me as a shill for NATO. In an email exchange with Shamir, he clarified his thinking. It was not as if I ever backed American military intervention but it was more a question of backing the EuroMaidan protests. His logic is that if you are critical of Russia, you automatically become a shill for NATO. This methodology has been around for quite some time. Despite his rather problematic stance on the blood and soil stuff, he also is capable of speaking as a kind of paleo-Stalinist:

By 1933, with the capitalist world deeply mired in a devastating economic crisis, unemployment was declared abolished, and remained so for the next five and a half decades, until socialism, itself, was abolished. The Communists produced social security more robust than provided even by Scandinavian-style social democracy, but achieved with fewer resources and a lower level of development and in spite of the unflagging efforts of the capitalist world to see to it that socialism failed. Soviet socialism was, and remains, a model for humanity – of what can be achieved outside the confines and contradictions of capitalism.

I should add that the mixture of paleo-Stalinism and the blood/soil/family stuff might not be that surprising given that the Communist Party in Russia has straddled Red and Brown positions for a number of years. I doubt that they will ever return to power with such a program but they seem content to campaign around such themes no matter how few Russians buy it. For the Brown crap, the pin-headed Russian can go straight to the rightwing nationalist parties. There will always be nostalgia for “the good old days” of the USSR but I suspect that for those who take their Marxism seriously, it will not be on the basis of describing Stalin’s USSR as a “model for humanity”. The Communist movement collapsed largely because of its investment in such a fiction and like Humpty-Dumpty there is nothing that will put it back together again. I suspect that Shamir writes a lot of outrageous stuff in order to get attention. Howard Stern has the same approach, but unlike Shamir, he is intentionally funny while Shamir is just funny.

To wrap things up, let me say a word or two about the main points in Shamir’s article. He makes the case that Putin is a good friend of the Jews and of Israel, even to the point of being friendly with Masha Gessen, a “Jewish Lesbian Putin-hater”. (Apparently Shamir is as obsessed with peoples’ sexual orientation as he is with their blood quotient.) Somehow, I doubt that Putin is friendly with a woman who wrote a blistering attack on him in “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” but let’s leave it at that.

After much more smoke-blowing about the Jews, Shamir gets to his main point, namely that global Jewry has a hard core (including me) that is part of a vast conspiracy to undermine Mother Russia and its good-hearted allies:  “Enemies of Putin in Russia, Ukraine, Europe and US do support Israel and are hostile to Palestine, to Syria of Bashar, to Venezuela of Chavez.” Well, I only speak for myself but I am quite capable of being opposed to the Baathists and supportive of the Chavistas at the same time, having written 28 articles over the years on behalf of Hugo Chavez’s movement as opposed to Shamir who has written none. He is more interested in writing about Jewzuela than Venezuela.

In terms of Syria and Palestine being litmus tests, this is a useful reminder of where things really stand. Based on Shamir’s criterion, 83 percent of the Palestinians would be considered “NATO shills” as well. So I am in good company.

Palestinians in Palestine still overwhelmingly against Assad

June 4, 2014 by Talal Alyan

As Assad opts for a modest 88.7% win for his third term, the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey reaffirms that the self-designated liberator of Palestine continues to be flatly rejected by Palestinian in Palestine. The survey found that 83% of Palestinians under occupation consider Bashar Al Assad “unfavorable”, 65% of which regard him as “very unfavorable”

Read full article http://beyondcompromise.com/2014/06/04/palestinians-in-palestine-still-overwhelmingly-against-assad/


June 15, 2014

Left Forum panel discussion on Lenin and democracy

Filed under: democracy,Left Forum,Lenin — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

This is the first in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Even though I was reconciled to making some points about Lenin and democracy within the sixty seconds allotted me during the Q&A after the presentations above, I was not ready to limit myself to a question. After 30 seconds (I timed myself) of making some points about the Bolsheviks opposing democracy in the Ukraine after 1917, someone in the audience interrupted me, telling me that I could only ask a question. I gave up at that point and walked out in disgust. If I knew who the nitwit was, I would have written an open letter warning him that if he ever did it again, he’d regret it–dagnabit.

Now that I am back in my ‘hood—the Internet—I don’t have to show anybody my stinking badge as the Mexican bandit told Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. I will have my say on these questions now and that’s that.

As might be expected from a panel organized by Paul Le Blanc, there was effusive praise for Lenin as a democrat. Nimtz just wrote a book titled “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets – or Both” that can be yours for a mere $85. An educated consumer can listen to him and decide whether to pony up the cash. Ty Law focused most of his talk on the election campaigns being run by Socialist Alternative, including his own in Minneapolis.

If you go strictly by what Lenin wrote, there’s not much to disagree with. Of course, we know from experience that Marxists reading the same Lenin texts can draw violently opposed conclusions, as is the case with the works of Marx and Engels as well.

With Lenin, this becomes even more of a problem when considering the actions of the Soviet state in the period following the October 1917 revolution when the survival of the state required sacrificing socialist principles in the interests of national security. What becomes even more confusing is that the sacrifice was often defended as serving socialist principles when they were in fact violating them. In a way, it was analogous to the character in “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, the very powerful Iranian film, who insisted that he was serving God by killing agents of the “Cultural NATO”.

We are used to cynical defenses of indefensible actions after Stalin took power but there is ample evidence that the Soviet Union was ready to apply realpolitik in the same fashion. The tragedy was that the application of realpolitik backfired as the Soviet victims came to the conclusion that when it came to their own interests and that of the Soviet state, they came in a distant second.

Let me review a few examples:

1. Turkey:

The USSR welcomed the new Kemalist government in Turkey as an anti-imperialist partner, which it was. Just as the Red Army drove back the Whites, Mustafa Kemal defeated the imperialist-backed Greek army. But in addition to being anti-imperialist, the Kemalists were also anti-Communist. In volume 3 of his history of the infant Soviet republic, E.H. Carr describes the willingness of the USSR to look the other way when it came to the democratic rights of the Turkish Communists:

The suppression of Edhem [a Makhno type figure] was immediately followed by drastic steps against the Turkish communists. Suphi was seized by unknown agents at Erzerum, and on January 28, 1921, together with sixteen other leading Turkish communists, thrown into the sea off Trebizond — the traditional Turkish method of discreet execution. It was some time before their fate was discovered. Chicherin is said to have addressed enquiries about them to the Kemalist government and to have received the reply that they might have succumbed to an accident at sea. But this unfortunate affair was not allowed to affect the broader considerations on which the growing amity between Kemal and Moscow was founded. For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.

2. Poland:

Thanks to Paul Kellogg, we are now privy to the USSR’s violation of Polish democratic rights when Lenin was alive and kicking. To put it in a nutshell, there was a tendency in the early 20s to consider the use of the Red Army as being roughly equivalent to Napoleon Bonaparte’s peasant army. Where Napoleon used the army to extend bourgeois-democratic social relations, the Red Army would serve to extend socialism where it did not exist beforehand as well as defend the USSR.

In giving the green light to an invasion of Poland in 1920, Lenin overruled Trotsky’s objections. Here is Kellogg’s explanation of the differences between Russia and Poland:

But Poland was not Russia. True, the Polish peasants were oppressed by a rich and corrupt landlord class, just as were the Russian peasants,. But they were also oppressed by Russia, through a long history of invasions and occupations. The relation of Poland to Russia was analogous to that of Ireland to Great Britain, Quebec to English Canada, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to the United States. The Polish people were an oppressed nation within the prison‐house of nations that had been Tsarist Russia. An army of Russian peasants was not going to be greeted as a liberation army any more than would be a British army in Ireland, an English Canadian army in Quebec, or an 18th‐century U.S. army in Haudenosaunee territory in what is today New York state.

The Russian invasion was a disaster, not just for the Red Army that was routed but for Polish Jews who fell victim to the Red Army’s demoralized deserters as Lenin noted:

A new wave of pogroms has swept over the district. The exact number of those killed cannot be established, and the details cannot be established (because of the lack of communication), but certain facts can be established definitively. Retreating units of the First Cavalry Army (Fourth and Sixth Divisions) have been destroying the Jewish population in their path, looting and murdering … Emergency aid is vital. A large sum of money and food must be sent.

3. Ukraine

This was the most glaring example. I find it singularly depressing that much of the left is either unaware of the painful realities of early Soviet history are—even worse—prefers to sweep it under the rug. I can only recommend once again the article titled “For the independence of Soviet Ukraine” (written when the Ukraine had not gained its independence) by Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski.

It will not only show how little interest the Bolsheviks had in the democratic rights of the Ukraine but the degree to which today’s problems have their origins in the Soviet state arrogating to itself the right of sovereignty over a “lesser nationality”:

Skrypnyk, a personal friend of Lenin, and a realist always studying the relationship of forces, was seeking a minimum of Ukrainian federation with Russia and a maximum of national independence. In his opinion, it was the international extension of the revolution which would make it possible to resist in the most effective fashion the centralising Greater Russian pressure. At the head of the first Bolshevik government in the Ukraine he had had some very bitter experiences: the chauvinist behaviour of Muraviev, the commander of the Red Army who took Kiev, the refusal to recognize his government and the sabotage of his work by another commander, Antonov-Ovseyenko, for whom the existence of such a government was the product of fantasies about an Ukrainian nationality. In addition, Skrypnyk was obliged to fight bitterly for Ukrainian unity against the Russian Bolsheviks who, in several regions, proclaimed Soviet republics, fragmenting the country. The integration of Galicia into the Ukraine did not interest them either. The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

What all these violations of democracy have in common is their belief in the special role of the USSR. As a cradle of socialism, it had the right to run roughshod over the democratic rights of other nationalities as part of a larger effort to defend socialism and by extension the worldwide revolution.

As should be obvious from the tendency of people like John Rees and Tariq Ali to line up with Putin against Obama, the same disregard for “lesser nationalities” never went away. What is bizarre, however, is the application of this Red Realpolitik to states that have nothing to do with socialism. A simple algebraic formula is applied. You take the position that any struggle that emerges against client states of Russia is ipso facto pro-imperialist. Since the world is divided between the “imperialist” bloc and the “non-imperialist” bloc, all you need to do is locate a struggle within the two camps. Any effort to understand or even sympathize with a Syrian or a Ukrainian sick and tired of oligarchic rule is excluded.

Of even greater concern is how this methodology feeds reactionary tendencies even as it is deployed on “anti-imperialist” grounds. As has been pretty well established, the European ultraright, including Golden Dawn that now sings Nazi anthems at its rallies, has thrown in its lot with Russia, which they see as a brake on European Union ambitions. The emerging alliance between ultraright parties and Russia also rests on social questions, such as the need to support “traditional values” such as Christianity and the nuclear family, as well as nativist opposition to immigrants. I sometimes wonder how in the world such people can fail to see the handwriting on the wall but then again I remember how blind the CP was in another period of a protracted economic downturn. If Marxism is to have any value in this period, it will be on the basis of drawing clear class lines. The time for building multiclass alliances in the name of questionable “anti-imperialism” is long gone.

June 13, 2014

Three films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

The world of Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” will remind you of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, so much so that you begin to wonder whether the Iranian political elites mined Soviet history to figure out how to keep a lid on society. This would have not been the first such attempt to do in the region if we can rely on reports that Saddam Hussein’s library was larded with Stalin’s writings.

Like Koestler’s main character Rubashov, who was modeled on Bukharin, the victims of repression in Rasoulof’s film were unlikely threats to a police state that was reinforced by popular assent to clerical authority. They are three elderly writers who have joined together in a bid to publish a novel based on an incident that actually occurred to them, at least within the fictional parameters of the plot. Twenty-one writers were invited to a conference in Armenia on artistic freedom, including the three. Unbeknownst to them, the regime has lined up a driver who has agreed to drive the bus over a cliff, killing everybody including him. At the last minute he flees from the bus as it sits on the edge of the cliff.

Early on there is a scene between one of the writers and the author of the novel where tensions among the intellectual opposition to the dictatorship are displayed, a likely reference to the state of affairs in the 1990s when a crackdown was taking place. The author is determined to see the novel published, no matter the consequences. His friend, a poet, tells him that is not worth the trouble since the youth of Iran are not interested in politics. It is Steven Jobs they idolize, not Che.

As the three writers wrangle with each other over these and other matters that involve their role in a society that appears to have little use for them, two men are bearing down on them under the orders of top security officials who apparently do see them as a threat. Their job is to track down the manuscripts and terminate the writers. In cases such as this and the Moscow Trials, genuine fear and paranoia among the elites tends to overlap. One of the two is a muscle-bound enforcer named Morteza; the other is his assistant, a pious working-class man named Khosrow who is only working as a hit man for the money even though he continuously assures Morteza that he doing it to serve god. That does not stop him from checking an ATM every few hours to see whether the payment for his last execution has been posted to his account. With a sick son and major medical expenses, Khosrow would pcontinues at his dirty job even though he cannot help wondering whether god was punishing him for being a professional killer.

The two killers report to a man who is the counterpart to Ivanov in “Darkness at Noon”, the old Bolshevik who has become a hardened administrator of Stalinist “justice”. Despite having been part of a powerful revolution for human freedom, Ivanov justifies his role as necessary for the survival of socialism. In “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, the security official served time in the Shah’s prisons just as Ivanov did in the Czar’s. When he meets with the writers, one at a time, he makes sure to remind them that he had somehow earned the right to be their judge, jury and executioner since he had a revolutionary past like them. But unlike them, he stood for the survival of the Iranian revolution against the “cultural NATO”, a term that I had not heard before but that clearly resonated with what I have seen from the Iranian media and its friends in the West.

The film is based on the Chain Murders of Iran that occurred over a ten-year period, beginning in 1988. Even though I try to keep track of what is occurring in Iran, I had not heard about this before. Wikipedia supplies the names of some of the victims:

  • Pirouz Davani – an Iranian leftist activist last seen in late August 1998 while leaving his residence in Tehran.
  • Hamid Hajizadeh – a teacher and poet from Kerman, along with his 9-year-old son, were found stabbed to death in their beds on the rooftop of their home on 12 September 1998.
  • Kazem Sami – Iran’s first Health Minister after the 1979 Islamic revolution, was stabbed to death November 1988 by an assailant posing as a patient at a clinic. No one was arrested.
  • Ali Akbar Saidi Sirjani – Iranian writer, poet and journalist who was imprisoned in 1994 and died shortly after while in prison
  • Ahmad Tafazzoli – a prominent Persian Iranist and master of ancient Iranian literature and culture found dead in January 1997.
  • Ebrahim Zalzadeh – editor of the monthly magazine Me’yar and the director of the publishing house Ebtekar, aged 49, went missing after leaving his office for home. His corpse was found on 29 March 1997 stabbed to death.

A full list of the 107 victims of death squads can be seen here: http://www.iran-bulletin.org/witness/infominlist.html

Mohammad Rasoulof used non-professionals and a digital camera to make this remarkable film. For the security of the actors, they are not named in the closing credits. Given the constraints he operated under, it is remarkable that he has made such a fully realized treatment of the Iranian political situation that will certainly have an impact in his country and the rest of the world. It has the tautness of a Costas-Gravas film with a knowledge of the country’s dissident intellectuals that can only come from direct experience. In 2010 he was sentenced to six years in prison but eventually the sentence was reduced to one year. When visiting Iran from Germany, where he now resides, his passport was seized and he cannot leave the country.

The film opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. My suggestion to New Yorkers is to make plans to see it because it is both a powerful drama and a document of how the Islamic Republic treats the real elites, the men and women of conscience who refuse to be silenced. It will open again in the fall at theaters everywhere and on VOD. I will make sure to post an announcement when the dates are firmed up.

“Evergreen: the Road to Legalization” opens today at the Cinema Village in New York. This very timely documentary deals with the fight to pass proposition I-502 in Washington State, a referendum that would make marijuana legal.

Because the film comes from First Run Features, a film distribution company that is heavily committed to progressive documentaries and feature films, I had expected it to be a straightforward advocacy for the bill. But as it progressed, it became much more of a treatment on the rather complex social and economic forces at work in the legalization campaigns nationwide.

You certainly might have expected the opponents of the bill to have their say but like me you might have been surprised to discover that the opponents were not exclusively “just say no” conservatives. A large part of the no vote was based in the pro-legalization camp that argued that the bill did not go far enough, particularly on its acceptance of a DWI provision that would victimize people who had enough of the drug in their bloodstream to earn them a jail term but clearly not enough to impair their driving. As many pot smokers allege and as evidence points out, there are no indications that users of medical marijuana ever get into accidents on the highway.

Some of the pothead opponents of the referendum were people who would have lost money if it passed. If you were in the black market, you could make a fortune. But if it was legal and subject to regulations, it was going to be less profitable.

The bill did pass. While it is not as deep-going as the Colorado legalization referendum that also passed, it opens the door to further advances. In a way, the cries of sell-out that emerged during the campaign for Proposition I-502 remind me of the denunciations of Kshama Sawant for voting for a $15 per hour minimum wage bill in Seattle, a base of support for the marijuana legalization campaign. You can read a letter to the ISO newspaper along these lines (When $15 isn’t really $15) as well as an editorial that took note of the importance of having the bill passed but with some questioning of Sawant and Socialist Alternative’s failure to keep their supporters abreast of their thinking. They were originally opposed to a bill weaker than the one they had initially supported but felt it necessary to have it passed before it was weakened any further.

These sorts of questions are exactly the kind that the left will be confronted with as it continues to grow in size and influence in an epoch of declining wages and living conditions. “Evergreen” is a good film to watch on how to maneuver in complex political situations even if the goal was not as essential to working-class survival as the minimum wage. However, for a close relative of mine who served four years in prison this was a matter of life and death. You can read about the ordeals of Joel Proyect here: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1992-03-01/news/1992061029_1_lawyer-growing-marijuana-sentence

“Northern Light” opens at the Maysles Cinema in New York on June 16th. As is the case with many indie films being made today, it relied on Kickstarter for the $25,000 it needed to complete.

Directed by Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff, this is a cinéma vérité documentary about the men who participate in a yearly 500-mile snowmobile race in northern Michigan on an ice-covered lake in the dead of winter each year. Bentgen grew up in a small town in the area and decided to spend several years with his co-director filming the families of three men who were participants.

Like the documentary about the four young African-American lesbians from Newark I reviewed in conjunction with the Human Rights Film Festival, the subjects of “Northern Light” are just as remote from most of our experiences. That is what makes such documentaries so valuable. They give people committed to social change and understanding of how ordinary working people live and play, getting past the stereotypes of NASCAR races, etc. Even though the men are racing snowmobiles, they come from the same milieu as stock car racers, although admittedly those driving at county fairs rather than at courses where first prize could be a million dollars.

The families in “Northern Light” are just one step beyond foreclosure. One man drives a sixteen-wheeler but says that he could make more money working in a Burger King. They attend church every Sunday but don’t appear particularly pious. For most, the snowmobile races are a way to transcend the bitter cold and bleak economic conditions of northern Michigan. This statement by co-director Nick Bentgen should give you an idea of what to expect from his film:

Throughout the production of this film, I was humbled by the stubborn work-ethic of the families I came to know. Walt woke before dawn to drive his eighteen-wheeler to Alabama, Texas, and Pennsylvania. In the span of a single day, Marie worked the early shift at Walmart, picked up extra hours as a cleaning lady, cooked dinner for her children, and studied for her exams late into the night.

The families of rural Michigan are the inheritors of pioneers and homesteaders; ruggedly independent and determined, living with hope in an unforgiving environment and retaining a spirit of self-reliance I can know only by example. I’m amazed by the footage we’ve captured–its quality not created by any technique, but found, in the genuine and generous nature of three compelling American families. I’m proud to have shared this experience with them.


Goodbye, Lenin

Goodbye Lenin


I hope that CounterPunch readers will forgive me for taking valuable time away from my film reviews of neglected treasures while I answer one of my critics from the “Leninist” left. As it happens, Paul Le Blanc, the International Socialist Organization’s avuncular scholar of Bolshevik history, devoted pretty much of a whole chapter to me in his latest book “Unfinished Leninism” (the chapter has the same title) and I would like the opportunity to use CounterPunch for my reply.

I am not accustomed to answering points made in a book but since many of the arguments about what Lenin stood for and whether he has any relevance for today’s left take place in books and in Historical Materialism, a high-toned print journal behind a paywall, I really have no choice. As a strong believer in the Internet, I would prefer to debate there since I see it as the modern counterpart of the Gutenberg press, the primary means of communication of our rebel forerunners. My guess is that if the quarrelsome Lenin were alive today, he would be conducting his debates on the Internet as well.

As a history professor, Le Blanc is obviously much more comfortable holding forth from a lectern or the printed page. That’s true for the rest of the ISO as well that sees the Internet as a necessary evil. As a handy tool to distribute an electronic version of their print publications, it would be much better if it weren’t a breeding ground for bilious critics and those who circulate their top-secret internal bulletins.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/13/goodbye-lenin/

June 10, 2014

Human Rights Film Festival 2014

Filed under: Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 12:44 am

Screen shot 2014-06-09 at 8.31.03 PM

Thanks to the growing use of Vimeo online screeners, it has become much easier to write articles in advance of film festival openings that relied in the past on DVD’s or special press screenings that usually occurred during the hours when I was at my desk at Columbia University.

That was one of the reasons I never made to the annual Human Rights Film Festival screenings in the past but this year I was able to view seven films that will be shown from June 12th to June 22nd. The festival is a project of Human Rights Watch, an outfit that has a mixed record to say the least. When it comes to nations that are on the State Department’s shit list, they can be quite reprehensible—their role in Venezuela has been most shameful. On the other hand, if I were a political prisoner being tortured somewhere whose cause that HRW had taken up, I’d be glad for their support. If your tendency is to reduce politics to a global chess game in which you have to play either White or Black, HRW will naturally be black. But reality contains 50 shades of grey, none of them having anything to do with sex I should add.

Furthermore, the young and often very far to the left documentary filmmakers whose works get shown at the festival are reliant on it for a screening since the commercial possibilities for a film about—for example, as you will see below—four lesbian women from Newark serving prison terms for attacking a homophobic bully in Greenwich Village are quite limited. On the other hand, that is exactly the kind of film that interests me as well as my readers.

Given the urgency of the Arab revolt, it is not surprising that a number of films dealt with it from a number of different perspectives. Let me start with them.

Because Cyprus is part of the EU, the Greek sector became a designated destination point for political refugees, including a preponderant number of Palestinians feeling sectarian violence in Iraq. Most are determined to make it to Europe and see Cyprus only as a way station. Despite being totally reliant on EU support and being prohibited from taking jobs in Cyprus for at least six months, a wave of xenophobia has swept the island after the fashion of Golden Dawn in Greece. When fascist threats fail to intimidate newly arrived refugees, there is the additional barrier represented by local immigration officials who put all sorts of obstacles in their path. The local branch of Golden Dawn in Cyprus is the ELAM, or the National Popular Front. As is the case with Greece, Cypriotes committed to human rights have mobilized against them. Their cause is taken up in “Evaporating Borders”.

“First to Fall” traces the steps of Hamid and Tarek, two young Libyans and close friends who live in Montreal and enjoy a peaceful and secure existence. When the revolt against Gaddafi erupts, they are riveted to news from their homeland and reports from Youtube and various websites. So inspired are they by the resistance to a 42-year-old dictatorship that they decide to return to Libya and become part of the armed struggle.

What strikes you almost immediately is that while the two young men are obviously motivated by political ideals (one lost family members during one of the waves of repression), they chatter about taking up the gun as if they were going to spring break in Florida.

Hamid, the older of the two, starts off as a videographer in Misrata but soon gets “promoted” to be a fighter after almost no training. In the bloody attempt to prevent the city from being overrun, he is hit by shrapnel and forced to undergo three surgeries to save his leg. In trying to deliver arms to combatants in Zawiya, the city of his birth, the 21-year-old Tarek is ambushed by Gaddafi’s troops and suffers wounds that leave him as a paraplegic.

Hamid stays in Libya to work in the Ministry of Defense. In the final moments of the film, that were recorded one year after the fall of Gaddafi, he describes himself as depressed by the government’s inability to move the country forward. For his part, Tarek, who has returned to Montreal, is preoccupied by his disability and cloudy future. Neither young man understood the full implications of going into battle against a well-armed professional military. Both would have been better off working for peaceful change inside Libya but Gaddafi made that impossible just as Bashar al-Assad is making it impossible in Syria. There are estimates of up to 15,000 casualties in the Libyan civil war, including Gaddafi’s soldiers. Proportionately, that would represent 750,000 dead in the US over an 8-month period. By any measure, this is one of the greatest bloodlettings in the Middle East and North Africa in recent memory. “First to Fall” is the definitive take on these events and should be of interest to anybody who has been following my articles on Libya, including to those who are violently opposed to my views. You owe it to yourself to see unmediated Libyan reality and not something filtered through the lens of Russian, Cuban or Venezuelan media.

As you probably know, “Return to Homs” depicts events that have been superseded by history. Largely because they were forced to confront tanks, helicopters and MIG’s with small arms, the young men defending Homs were forced to abandon the city. As Tacitus once said, “They make a desert and call it peace.” I reviewed the film a while back (https://louisproyect.org/2014/03/26/return-to-homs/) and urge you to see this most powerful film that will either remind you of the dedication and heroism of those who took arms against the Baathist dictatorship or perhaps convince you of why you were wrong to regard it as an instrument of American foreign policy.

To put it bluntly, “The Green Prince” is an Israeli propaganda film about Shin Bet’s recruitment of he son of a Hamas founder as an informer. Unlike the great feature film “Omar” that shows the brutal methods that made a Palestinian youth become a snitch, this documentary represents the informer as acting on higher beliefs—his newfound commitment to stop terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. If you get past the obvious propaganda intentions, the film is a fascinating look at Israeli strategy at creating divisions in the Palestinian movement after the fashion of the FBI’s decades-long operations. Fascinating in its own way, like looking at photographs of some debilitating disease.

Director Sara Ishaq was born to a Yemeni father and a Scottish mother who separated when she was young. After deciding that Yemeni society was too restrictive, she moved to Scotland to be with her mother.

“The Mulberry House” was made during one of her infrequent visits to Yemen that coincided with the version of the Arab Spring that was occurring there. It is both a family drama and a drama of Yemenite society as the household joins the movement opposed to the corrupt dictator Ali Saleh who resigned under pressure but left his deputy in charge. This solution has evaded Syria, where the Baathists and the military/corporate elite run the state like a mafia.

Overhearing the conversations in the forward-thinking Ishaq household over whether Sara is dressed “modestly” enough leads you to believe that Yemeni society is in need of a social revolution that drives a stake through the heart of the patriarchy. Indeed, the plaints heard throughout the household from the male members about the “damned” Yemenis who tolerate Saleh make you wonder if the patriarchy is a sine qua non for the ongoing corrupt and dictatorial rule.

Continuing with the themes of patriarchy and democracy, “The Supreme Price” focuses on the efforts of Hafsat Abiola, a Harvard educated Nigerian woman, to challenge the military dictatorship in her country as well as the current government that serves its interests as well as that of foreign oil companies interested in one thing and one thing only: a steady supply of crude oil.

Hafsat is the daughter of M.K.O. Abiola, who was elected president in 1993 but overthrown by a coup almost immediately. As one of Nigeria’s richest men, he was apparently too committed to redistributing the nation’s wealth and was removed. In some ways, he was Nigeria’s Thaksin Shinawatra. When his wife gave interviews and led protests about her husband’s removal and subsequent jailing, thugs hired by the coup leaders killed her. Shortly afterwards, her husband died in jail supposedly from a heart attack but more likely from poison.

The film is an excellent introduction to Nigerian history, all the more important given the rise of Muslim “extremists” in the North. After seeing the film, you will wonder why the entire country is not swept by terror against the elites. Sadly, the only target Boko Haram deems worthy of targeting is schoolgirls.

“Nelson Mandela: the myth and me” is to my knowledge the first documentary since “Dear Mandela” (https://louisproyect.org/2012/09/26/dear-mandela/) that reflects the disillusionment that has set in since the ANC’s neoliberal betrayal became too obvious to ignore.

To give you an idea of he road that director Khalo Matabane has traveled, he made “Story of a Beautiful Country” in 2004, a documentary described on IMDB as follows:

This is an interesting, upbeat documentary that presents a cross-section of South African society several years after the end of apartheid. Especially interesting are the comments of the white South African and the married couple, a black Soutt African, and his South-African American wife who looks white but in fact isn’t. These interviews give the impression of the country populated with wonderful people who have lots to say and live in a country that is worthy of respect. Apartheid is gone, a relic of the past. Today’s South Africa has moved forward. Judging by the tone and quality of the interviews, South Africa is moving in the right direction.

If the ANC has lost people like Khalo Matabane, its days are numbered.

Unlike most films shown at the festival, “Siddharth” is a narrative film about the search of an impoverished Indian father for his son who has gone missing after being sent off to work as a child laborer, an all-too-common fate in a country whose “economic miracle” is not enjoyed by the overwhelming majority. I reviewed it last December (https://louisproyect.org/2013/12/03/2013-south-asian-film-festival-in-n-y-not-to-be-missed/) and can recommend it as a neorealist critique of a society that will certainly go from bad to worse under a government that promises to go full speed ahead with neoliberal “reforms”.

Finally, there’s “Out in the Night”, a film I alluded to earlier in this article. As is the case with documentary films on the leading edge, it takes up the cause of society’s most marginal figures: a group of four young women who defended themselves against a Black male homophobe whose hatred of “deviants” was as toxic in its own way as George Zimmerman’s of Trayvon Martin. Loved and accepted by their friends and parents, the four women had to put up with plenty of harassment in “the hood”. They came to the Village as often as they could to be among same-sexers, after the fashion of generations that came before them as described in Paul Buhle and David Berger’s “The Bohemians”.

Director blair dorosh-walther, who “identifies as gender non-conforming and uses both male and female pronouns”, described her/his inspiration for the film:

Immediately following the arrest of seven young African American women on August 18th, 2006, I became interested in their case. I read the many salacious headlines like “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” “Gal Gang,” “I’m a man, lesbian growled” and on and on. However, it was the first of many New York Times articles that really gave me pause. The headline read: “Man is stabbed after admiring a stranger.” An admirer?? I really could not believe it. A man does not ‘admire’ teenage girls on the street at midnight. That is harassment. And I have never met a woman who hasn’t been harassed on the street at some point in her life, never mind in New York City where it is commonplace.

I don’t know about the “admiration” this creep had for the four teenagers, but my admiration for blair dorosh-walther is undying.

Go to http://ff.hrw.org/new-york for scheduling information on these and other films.

June 8, 2014

Tariq Ali on images from Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

June 7, 2014

Syria and The National Interest

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Flynt and Hillary Mann Everett: the only two people who have written both for Monthly Review and Irving Kristol’s The National Interest

Consider this the latest installment in an ongoing series on the right-left convergence. Just yesterday Idrees Ahmed, the author of a devastating critique of Sy Hersh’s articles blaming the rebels for the sarin gas attacks in Syria, brought my attention to an article in The National Interest by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett titled “A Middle East Tragedy: Obama’s Syria-Policy Disaster” that has appeared in one form or another at least a thousand times over the past four years.

Conversely, there is no polling or other evidence suggesting that anywhere close to a majority of Syrians wants Assad replaced by some part of the opposition. Indeed, the opposition’s popularity appears to be declining as oppositionists become ever more deeply divided and ever more dominated inside Syria by Al Qaeda-like jihadis. Just last year, NATO estimated that popular support for the opposition may have shrunk to as low as 10 percent of the Syrian public.

To give you an idea of the meretricious character of this sort of punditry, the ‘estimated’ link in the paragraph above is to an article in http://www.worldtribune.com, a website that was launched by one of Reverend Moon’s editors at the Washington Times. A 2003 New Yorker magazine article on the World Tribune indicates its willingness to play fast and loose with the facts:

Aficionados of the Drudge Report may have noticed several striking headlines recently linking to stories from the World Tribune, an enterprise with a title as grand and ambitious as it is unfamiliar. One such story last week began, “U.S. intelligence suspects Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have finally been located.” The apparent scoop—of stop-the-presses significance—was unsigned, and billed as a “special to World Tribune.com.”

So things come full circle. Friends of the Syrian dictatorship write articles “proving” that al-Assad has the support of 90 percent of the population based on lies that appear in a website that was a key backer of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

For those of you who keep track of Yoshie Furuhashi’s MRZine, a website that has the tacit approval of MR éminence grise John Foster Bellamy, you might recall that the Leveretts were regular contributors there for a few years, making the case for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now that a “reformist” has replaced Ahmadinejad, the MR outlet’s enthusiasm has dimmed.

But who could have predicted that the Leveretts would eventually end up writing articles for The National Interest, a magazine that was ostensibly as far from the Monthly Review weltanschauung as can be imagined?

Irving Kristol was to The National Interest as Paul Sweezy was to Monthly Review. He launched the magazine in 1985 as a leading voice of neoconservatism. Kristol, like Sweezy, was a radical in the 1930s but aligned with the Trotskyist movement. He was one of a number of CCNY leftists who turned to the right under the impact of the Cold War. You can find out about all these renegades in a good documentary titled “Arguing the World”. (Available as a DVD from Netflix or from Amazon streaming.)

George W. Bush awarded Kristol the Medal of Freedom in 2002, the highest non-military citation. This was in gratitude for his support for American imperialist interventions going on since WWII and especially for his avid support for the “war on terror”.

So given the support for intervention in Syria by the likes of Republicans like John McCain and hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton, why would The National Interest be publishing articles that could have appeared just as easily on MRZine, Global Research or any of a dozen other “anti-imperialist” websites?

To start with, it is necessary to understand that The National Interest has evolved. It is no longer an advocate of Wilsonian crusades for democracy at the point of a bayonet. Instead it has taken its stand with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party that hews to the “isolationist” policies of Senator Robert Taft. Such Republicans were invited to speak at Ralph Nader’s right-left conference in Washington on May 27th.

It is not hard to figure out the magazine’s orientation given a number of the editors now ensconced there. For example, Andrew Bacevich is a contributing editor and John Mearsheimer is a member of the advisory board. Bacevich, a career military man and scholar, has become a high-profile opponent of the Bush era full-tilt “war on terror” as well as Obama’s “limited” drone program. As a hard-core realist, Bacevich understandably could come to the conclusion that “Except to Syrians, the fate of Syria per se doesn’t matter any more than the fate of Latvia or Laos.” In other words, Bacevich is just as US-centric as those he battles against, except on the opposite side of the ledger. Where men like LBJ argued that it was necessary to intervene in Vietnam so as to make sure falling dominoes do not reach Omaha, Bacevich takes the position that we should let the dominoes fall where they may since they will never reach Omaha. In either case, we are dealing with thinking squarely within the walls of Foggy Bottom.

Mearsheimer is best known as a critic of the “Israel Lobby” but has also weighed in on the “antiwar” side during the “red line” furor after the sarin gas attack in Ghouta. In a panel discussion on PBS, he made the case for non-intervention:

I think that the United States has no strategic interest in this particular case. Our core strategic interests are not at stake. There’s no compelling moral case for intervening in Syria. And, very importantly, it’s not clear that using military force is going to do any good.

Like Bacevich, Mearsheimer is thinking in terms of “the national interest”. Since Henry Kissinger, the 20th century’s Metternich, is the magazine’s honorary chairman, naturally this is its dominant perspective. When Irving Kristol was running things, the magazine championed interventionism since the Cold War was naturally in America’s “interest”. Now that the Cold War is over and Russia is capitalist and the beneficiary of major investments by Exxon-Mobil and BP, it is necessary to be more “nuanced”. A scalpel rather than a broadsword is necessary. What any of this has to do with the class struggle is anybody’s guess, of course.

I don’t want to appear cynical about the Leveretts but I wonder to what extent their advocacy for Iran and Syria is a mixture of business and pleasure. Hillary Mann Leverett is the CEO of The Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, a consulting firm that will certainly earn big bucks trading on the husband and wife’s close ties to Tehran. If you go to the company’s website, you’ll get a good idea of what they are up to. Doug Arent, their executive director, spoke at a “Champions of Change” White House symposium. He made the case for fracking, a technique that will promote the use of natural gas, an energy source he regards as beneficent as solar power. Here are the Leveretts arguing against EU sanctions on Iran, something that will cut off the supply of natural gas. No wonder these people are working overtime on Iran and Syria’s behalf. There’s money to be made.

With allies like the Leveretts and The National Interest, the antiwar movement in the US has the wind in its sails, all the more so given recent reports that Obama’s war threats against Bashar al-Assad had been empty bluster all along. Robert Ford, who resigned recently as the US Ambassador to Syria, testified to that in a CNN interview. It has also been widely reported that Hillary Clinton favored arming the rebels early on but was overruled by President Obama. You can be assured that these reports will have little impact on an “anti-imperialist” left that has convinced itself that the White House remains poised to carry out a Bush-style attack on Syria.

For such good people are quite sure that they are following in the footsteps of the antiwar movement of the early 2000s that mobilized millions against Bush’s “war on terror”. Does it matter that over the past four years, the Obama administration has shown little interest in such a war, refuses to supply anything more than light arms, and—most importantly—acts to block the shipment of MANPAD’s from Libya and other sources, the only weapons that could have made a difference?

I can share their opposition to American intervention since I have learned over the past 50 years or so that nothing good ever comes out of it. Where I stand apart is over the question of how to regard the Syrian revolution that they hate like a vampire hates holy water. In their mind, the plebeian masses who demonstrated against Baathist tyranny in early 2011 and then took up arms when peaceful protest was no longer possible are the moral and political equivalent of the Nicaraguan contras that Irving Kristol championed. Who can help them understand that the same politics that shaped The National Interest in 1986 continues to shape it today? Namely, the commitment of the US ruling class to choose oligarchic capitalist rule over proletarian opposition, either peaceful or armed. I have almost given up trying.

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