Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 27, 2015

From Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl’ Shakrai’s “The Ukrainian Communist Party (Bolsheviks)”

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

The surge of national consciousness and the intense will for a free, sovereign, and independent life revealed by the Ukrainian revolutionary national movement completely preclude the very thought of the Ukraine’s return to the status of a colony of some other power. Sooner or later, through the difficult and bloody course of armed conflict or through agreement—the democratic way of resolving issues in dispute between neighboring countries—the Ukraine will be independent and sovereign not only in words but in reality. Either as the result of an extended diplomatic and armed struggle, by maneuvering among states, or through the revolutionary activity of its worker-peasant masses, the Ukraine will become independent. At best, the Ukraine will become completely free in the very near future thanks to the activity and consciousness of its national masses, and the more rapidly and fully this goal is reached the better it will be for the Ukraine and her neighbors. There will be fewer national quarrels and less hostility; the further progress of the Ukraine’s economic, political, social, cultural, and spiritual life will be easier, and the Ukraine’s contribution to the treasury of world culture will be greater. And on the other hand, the less strength and activity it manifests in the near future, the more drawn out is the independence process, the more the Ukraine has to rely on diplomacy or on external assistance—the longer will she remain in the morbid condition of an unsolved national question, and the more the poison of national hostility, quarrels, and incitement will hinder socioeconomic, socio-political, and spiritual-cultural progress. Revolutions not only reveal deeper springs and forces, not only reject all that is superficial and conventional, they are also the locomotives of history. Days in a revolutionary era are the equivalent of decades in more peaceful periods. What demands many long years in a peaceful era may be attained in a few months in a revolution. And just as steel is tempered in the conflagration of revolution, so peaceful development often rusts and corrodes it. If the Ukrainian national question is not settled now, during the revolutionary era, if it is handed on to posterity, like rust it will corrode the socioeconomic and cultural-political development of the Ukraine and its neighbors.

That is why it is so important that all the forces presently contending in the Ukraine, and because of the Ukraine, realize fully the importance of this decisive moment in history. This is especially true for the relations between the Ukraine and Russia. Many socio-economic and cultural-spiritual links have been forged during the two and a half centuries of the Ukraine’s confinement within the boundaries of tsarist and autocratic Russia, but, at the same time, so much filth has collected on these links that they have lost their elasticity and become stiff, incapable of bending with the turns of history. They crack and break, and the break is not clean; rails, beams, and ties point in different directions and intermingle in the most monstrous ways. This process is very painful for both sides of the break: rails and beams wound people; rocks, cement, and coal cover people; dust and chips are thrown in their faces, blinding them; and the crackling and roaring deafens them.

Instead of clearing away individual rails and beams and wasting energy attaching supports to walls which may fall in today or tomorrow, it is better to clear out the whole place, removing the old and installing new rafters.

The sooner this fact is realized, and the more clearly, the better it will be. Soviet Russia should realize this before all others. C. Rakovski spoke the truth when he said that the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic is the heir to the Russian Empire. But the conclusion to be drawn from this is diametrically opposed to the one reached by C. Rakovski at the peace conference.8 It should not be forgotten that Soviet Russia inherited not only a great state but also a lot of rottenness and dirt. One should inspect one’s acquisitions with care; historical experience makes clear that some inheritances should be renounced in order not to ruin completely the possessions acquired through one’s own efforts. Such is the case of the Ukraine. One should forget about the former Southern Russia and remember that the Ukraine rose in its place, forget about the former colony and remember that it is now a sovereign independent country—if not im Sein then im Werden—forget that workers came from Central Russia to work in the Donets Basin and will continue to come in the future, forget about the 2,100,000 Russians living among the 16,500,000 Ukrainians and about the need, for their sake, to regain the birthright. Relations with the Ukraine must find a new set of foundations; they must be based on a real and alive—not a verbal—international unity. It is time to abandon the various scientific investigations demonstrating how insignificant are the ethnographic differences be-tween Ukrainians and Russians, time to forget Valuevism, Stolypinism, and Mymretsovism, time to acknowledge sincerely the right of nations to self-determination, time, in short, to face the facts. It is time to implement Article 5 of the Resolution of the 1913 Summer Conference and reach the appropriate conclusion: either one way or the other. And this conclusion must be reached without fearing that others will differ. Forget about the pottage of lentils, sugar, coal, iron, or grain. These will take care of themselves. And when this is done you will have such an ally as cannot be acquired from any kind of one and indivisible.

The Ukrainian workers and peasants should also come to their senses. In the first place, this will help the Russian workers and peasants to their senses and, second, as the proverb states: Heaven helps those who help themselves.


February 26, 2015

The Syrian war, Israel, Hezbollah and the US-Iran romance: Is Israel changing its view on the war?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:26 pm

The Syrian war, Israel, Hezbollah and the US-Iran romance: Is Israel changing its view on the war?.

February 25, 2015

The Ukrainian National Movement versus Great Russian chauvinism

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

As some of you may know, Roger Annis, a one-time member of the Trotskyist movement in Canada, has become one of the most prominent, prolific and ardent defenders of the Kremlin’s attempt to carve a Novorossiya out of Ukraine, and arguably other territory that dates back to the original Russian empire created during the reign of Catherine the Great.

For most defenders of Putin’s foreign policy, support for the Lugansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics is based on the notion that Russia was forced to back the separatists and annex Crimea as a defensive measure against NATO encroachment. There are references to John Mearsheimer’s argument that Russia is entitled to do this because the USA does it as well. Just look at how JFK reacted to Russian bases in Cuba. Why would anybody expect the Kremlin to behave any differently when Ukraine was becoming aligned with NATO and western corporations? That the left would adopt such logic is really quite breathtaking. When you excuse Russia on this basis, where does socialism fit in? It was never a great idea to defend Soviet control over the “buffer states” in the name of realpolitik, and all the more so after Russia became another capitalist society.

Generally I don’t respond to Roger’s articles since most people have pretty much made up their mind on the Ukrainian issues. But I was taken aback when I saw his latest post on his website titled Dramatic Shifts in the political and military situation in Ukraine that includes a link to another article titled Donetsk Peoples Republic proclaims itself successor of the Donetsk-Krivoy-Rog Republic of 1918. The linked article makes the case that the breakaway republics are simply a restoration of the original Soviet republic that followed in the footsteps of October 1917. It states:

The capital of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic was Kharkiv and later Lugansk. The government of the Republic was represented by a Council of People’s Commissars, headed by Artem (Fyodor Sergeyev). In March 1918, the Republic became part of Soviet Ukraine, at the time a constituent of part of Soviet Russia. A year later, an agreement was reached for its dissolution. A Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared in 1922 and its capital became Kyiv. It was a founding constituent of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, founded the same year.

Understandably, this historical reference might seem obscure to the average reader, and even some veterans of the Marxist movement who have this blog bookmarked. At first blush, this might seem like a good thing. Who could possibly object to the separatists invoking the infant USSR especially when their enemy has John McCain on its side? Maybe this was Boris Kagarlitsky’s encomium to the Donetsk separatists as “the perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order” finally coming true.

As it happens, these questions were very much on mind as I was working my way through a book titled “On the Current Situation in the Ukraine” that is a collection of articles written by Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl’ Shakrai in 1918 in the context of a faction fight in the Ukrainian Communist Party over Ukraine’s independence. The two largest factions, the left Kievists and the right Katerynoslavists, were both primarily made up of native Russians who regarded independence as a bourgeois deviation. The Katerynoslavists, named after the city of Katerynoslav in the eastern Ukraine, were particularly hostile to independence and regarded the ethnic Ukrainians as peasant bumpkins urgently in need of assimilation into the Russian-speaking working class. In their polemic titled “Unity or Independence”, Mazlakh and Shakrai quote the Katerynoslavists:

In response to the categorical demand of the Ukrainian social-democratic parties for an indication of the attitude of the Communist Party organizations toward the Ukrainian question, we have busied ourselves with what, for the Party, was an empty and objectively stupid matter pertaining to an oppressed nation. . . repetition of ‘words’ about our recognition of the Ukraine’s right to separation at a time when the All-Russian Council of People’s Commissars demands from us a different attitude toward this right—clear and categorical statements and strong agitation in favor of a possibly closer connection between the Ukraine and Russia, against separation and for proletarian-revolutionary unity.

The Kremlin had sent one Christian Rakovsky to help promote “proletarian-revolutionary unity”. Rakovsky had a fairly distinguished career as a revolutionary but when it came to the national question—and Ukraine in particular—he was dreadful, reminding one of the hostile articles in the CPUSA press about “reactionary black nationalism” dividing the working class in the 1960s. Using a good command of Marxist jargon but with little understanding of Ukrainian realities, Rakovsky pontificated: “First of all, the ethnographic differences between Ukrainians and Russians are in themselves insignificant . . . More important is the fact that the Ukrainian peasantry lack what is generally called “national consciousness” . . . The Ukrainian proletariat is completely Russian in origin.”

In a very real sense, Annis, Boris Kagarlitsky and the Borotba group in Ukraine that works closely with outfits like John Rees’s Counterfire and Alan Woods’s IMT is a continuation of the Katerynoslavist tradition, a tendency that can only be described as Great Russian chauvinist in character.

The Donetsk-Krivoy-Rog Republic of 1918 was to Ukraine as Ulster was to Great Britain, an enclave ruled by the privileged enemies of self-determination. It was a reactionary tendency no matter who gave it their blessing, from Christian Rakovsky to Lenin. It was exactly such attempts to create territorial facts on the ground through superior military and economic power that became the counterpart of Guantanamo, the American military base in Cuba, the Malvinas, et al.

Ever since the Maidan protests broke out last year, I have made an earnest attempt to research Ukrainian Marxism that was steadfast against Great Russian domination, whether it originated in the Czarist ministries or the Comintern. Below you can read one of Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl’ Shakrai’s most useful articles in their campaign against national chauvinism and for the independence of Ukraine.

I want to call particular attention to the concluding paragraphs of the article that refers to Lenin’s article on the lessons of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916. This article is one of the most important that Lenin ever wrote, calling attention to the need to see revolutions dialectically. Lenin wrote:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

This is exactly the way I approach “impure” uprisings such as the Maidan and the ones that have taken place in the Middle East and North Africa. Others, of course, are free to choose their own way of looking at things even if sadly mimics the dogmatic, economistic and chauvinist tendencies of Christian Rakovsky and the Katerynoslavists.

The Ukrainian National Movement Against the Background of the Modern Capitalist-Imperialist Economy

One need not have studied in a seminary to know that we live in the epoch of the higher stage of capitalist development, the epoch of the domination of finance capital, the epoch of capitalist imperialism.

In this epoch the tendency of the capitalist economy to involve all parts of the globe in world trade, all-encompassing economic ties, and economic interdependence is becoming extremely powerful, and finance capital has all the necessary means for implementing and putting into effect this tendency.

The network of railroads covers almost the whole globe; every day gigantic steamships ply the seas and oceans in all directions; subways, submarines, and airplanes, telegraph and telephone wires enfold the earth like a spider’s web, under water and in the air. Thousands and millions of people communicate over them every day and every minute; goods are moved; every news event is broadcast over the whole world within a few minutes; every inquiry or disturbance is at once echoed in the most distant lands. The thousands of economic ties stretching out in every direction are supplemented by those of a cultural character. Financial ties among banks, enterprises, and states; commercial deals; international syndicates and trusts; trade agreements, colonial policies—all establish the closest ties among the countries of the world, strengthen them, and make them more all-encompassing. The bears’ dens whose inhabitants never leave and never hear any news, whose interests do not extend beyond their village, district, or region, are steadily vanishing.

The multilateral international interdependence of individual institutions and of the whole economies of various countries; the international organization of banks, enterprises, and trade relations; the internationalization of learning, literature, languages, technology, arts, fashions, manners, and customs; the many-sided continuing, lively, political relations; the continual intermingling of people of different nations—in a word, the internationalization of all spheres of life by the gigantic productive forces of contemporary capitalist society, are indisputable facts.

But there is another side to this increasing interdependence of modern society and the increasing involvement of outlying areas in its economic life. Side by side with this internationalization of economic, social, political, and spiritual culture goes a nationalization, an intensification of national feeling in the masses, an awakening of their national consciousness. This leads to the consolidation of nations, revives backward and seemingly lost nations, leads them from a state of helplessness and ignorance to one of national consciousness, and impels them to create their own literatures.

And this is entirely understandable. The development and spread of capitalist production among backward peoples draws them out of their patriarchal and feudal conditions of life, by destroying their old methods of production and introducing them to new goods, new ideas, new customs and needs promotes their advance, and by compelling them to seek work in factories and in cities, on railways, leads them into the new culture. Regardless of how simple it is, factory or railroad work demands greater intelligence than work in a village. All this impels them to study, faces them with the necessity of learning how to read and write in order not to get lost, so as to better their position. Before them are spread the wonders and riches of modern capitalist culture. If they are not adopted by the people, they will crush them. But this culture can be adopted only when presented in a suitable form, in a language the people understand. Although some are able to learn one or more foreign languages, and thus acquire an alien culture, the whole nation cannot do this. The people cannot spend so much time in study: one must work, keep house, earn a crust of bread. Someone, therefore, must undertake to acquaint them with the results of scientific investigations and artistic achievements in a suitable form—that is, in their native language. Their children must be schooled in their native language, and this means a need for teachers. They need officials (whether elected or not is unimportant here) who know and use the native language.

In thus awakening the national masses of the most oppressed, crushed, and undeveloped nations, capitalism creates the need for conscious and educated men—the intelligentsia.

The intelligentsia is generated out of the people, although the birth process differs from one nation to the other. Different classes have participated in different ways in contributing to the intelligentsia: bureaucrats, teachers, parliamentarians, party leaders, lawyers, engineers, writers, technicians, speakers, and scholars. We know that every social class has its own intelligentsia. But irrespective of these different class origins and views, the intelligentsia of all classes have common features which justify our viewing them as a separate social group. The principal feature or characteristic of the intelligentsia as a social group is its role in satisfying the spiritual needs of society or of some special social group or class. To perform this task properly the intellectual needs an appropriate means of production. The intellectual’s means of production is the word—his language. In addition, every group of the intelligentsia needs its own special means of production: the physician, medicine and medical instruments; the writer, paper and pen; the scholar, office or laboratory. But the primary and essential means of production of each of them is language—the printed or spoken word, literature, knowledge.

These productive forces affect the intellectual in many ways. On this base is erected the superstructure of the intelligentsia with all of its features good and bad: altruism and the sincere love of one’s own people and of all humanity, disdain for the material side of life, a broad outlook: but also the desire to become a bureaucracy, to live more gaily and spaciously, narrowmindedness, petty-bourgeois attitudes, and timidity.

The intelligentsia is an indispensable product and agent of bourgeois society. In a communist society it may be possible to abolish the intelligentsia as a separate group by transforming all classes into intelligentsia. But until this happens, no class or group can dispense with the intelligentsia. Nor can any nation do without its national intelligentsia.

A nation is interested in having its own intelligentsia to care for its spiritual needs, but on the other hand, the intelligentsia is concerned that the nation be great, strong, and educated because these factors determine the demands for the books of its teachers, officials, authors, and doctors. The capitalist mode of production enforces an increasingly extensive division of labor, the improvement and perfecting of instruments, machinery, and so on. It also leads to an improvement in the means of production of the intelligentsia—his language—because on this depends his ability to express the subtlest variations of thought, feelings, impressions, and so on, and even the further development of the nation. Furthermore, pedagogy holds that the education of the child and his further development as a human being are promoted more effectively by teaching in the native language. This is true generally for all members of a given nation, but it has additional importance for the child who will become an intellectual, for in this way he will learn the language better and use it in all its strength, beauty, and richness—thus with more success. With the exception of a few particularly talented persons, only one who has used a language from early childhood will gain a deep knowledge of it. In modern education it appears that, as a rule, only the native language can be used accurately.

“To master the accomplishments of international culture the intellectual should learn foreign languages, but if he is to make a contribution to culture, this must be done primarily in his native tongue. His initial audience are the members of his own nation. That intellectual is fortunate who is a member of a great nation, and especially of a nation whose language has become a world language. In such a case he speaks to the whole world. On the other hand, the intellectual from a minor nation which is, furthermore, poor and backward, can of course acquire a profound knowledge of international culture by learning foreign languages, but his own contribution to this culture will often fail to reach a public even though his works show extraordinary genius. He is forced to use a foreign language in which his thoughts are less well expressed.

“For this reason no one so ardently desires to see his nation achieve greatness as an intellectual from a minor nation.

“It is precisely those well-educated people who have mastered foreign languages, are most influenced by international culture, and are most concerned with the purity of their own language, who worry about expanding the area in which it is used and about reducing the number of people who read only foreign authors. In short, the most internationalized elements of the nation at the same time appear to be the most nationalistic.”

But we should warn the reader against an error which is often set forth as absolute truth. This is the view that the nation is the invention of the intelligentsia. We must warn the more strongly against this error in view of the currently widespread fashion of scolding the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia indeed deserve this rebuke, but it is not necessary to throw out the baby with the bath water. The intelligentsia may be punished, may be brought to its knees, but the nation cannot dispense with it without doing harm to itself. This is the more true in view of the fact that the sharpest rebukes also come from the intelligentsia.

The intelligentsia’s role in modern society in general, and in national movements in particular, can be explained by analogy with the role of machinery in contemporary capitalist production. The analogy extends to cover the mode of coping with the shortcomings of both intelligentsia and machines.

There can be no doubt that the existence of machines has placed another weapon in the hands of the capitalists for use against the proletariat and against the broad masses of toilers; that machines have given rise to an unprecedented exploitation of the workers; and that they have, by accelerating production, helped the capitalists to gain domination over millions of toilers, thus leading to expropriation, proletarization, and hardship. But there can also be no doubt that the movement against the use of machinery in production which arose in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, at the dawn of the modern capitalist era, hurt the workers and not the capitalists. Not only did it fail to help in the struggle with hardship and misery, it even worsened the position of the workers. One should not oppose the machines, but rather their capitalist exploitation at the expense of the toiling masses. One should not abolish the intelligentsia but rather use it in one’s own interests, thus to free all from slavery, transform everyone into intelligentsia, and abolish the abyss between mental and physical labor.

The intelligentsia’s role in a national movement is analogous to the role of the machine in capitalist production. It is not because of the machinery that capitalism exists, develops, and expands; on the contrary, machinery exists because of the existence, development, and expansion of capitalism. National movements do not come into existence and wax strong and active because of the national intelligentsia; on the contrary, the national intelligentsia comes into being because national movements exist and become strong and active.

Capitalism uproots millions of people of different nations, moves them from place to place, mixes them all together, pounds them in the mortar of capitalist production, cooks them in the boiler of the factory, grinds them in the mill of combined enterprises, melts them down in the ovens of “metallurgical colossi,” and shapes them into a new type of iron, cast iron, and steel. Thus nations are born and develop, and national movements appear over and over again, grow stronger, and demand autonomy and independence. This is not reasonable; the productive forces of certain shopkeepers, philistines, and financial titans grow angry at it—but what can you do, history is so foolish, it did not study at the Katerynoslav seminary.

The observation and study of national movements, of the awakening and development of nations, show that the existence of a peasantry is of prime importance for the preservation and formation of a nation. Capitalism, with its capacity for cracking the concrete and iron Chinese walls of particularism and provincialism, even affects the peasant masses when conditions are suitable: a territory, large or small, inhabited by more or less the same nationality. Capitalism wakens these masses, forces them to leave their villages and districts, makes them aware of problems beyond what can be seen from the village belfry. The peasants who migrate to the cities become workers or intellectuals. Although at the beginning of the process isolated workers and intellectuals are quickly assimilated, acquire the veneer of the new culture, and are ashamed of their peasant language and peasant origin—as the process continues, and as they learn more about the new and higher culture, they come to understand the deep abyss which exists between the more cultured and educated and their own browbeaten and illiterate village people. Then they return to their own villages and begin to work with enthusiasm at awakening the peasants’ consciousness, at raising them to the higher cultural level.

“The prestige of the nation to which they belong is not a matter of indifference to the elements in the framework of capitalist production—and least of all to the existing classes and to the wage-worker” The history of the past century presents much glaring evidence that workers do borrow these and other national slogans.

But, although the wage worker can learn a foreign language quickly and become assimilated (this applies likewise to the capitalist, the landowner, and the intellectual) , the peasant has no such opportunity. He lives in a village where foreigners do not penetrate, or at the most pass through for brief visits. He himself rarely visits a foreign city, and, if he does, for such a short period that it is pointless to talk of his acquiring a foreign language.

Thus the peasantry, as the base, and the intelligentsia as the ideologues, the superstructure, have (in recent decades, at least) been the principal agents of any national movement. This contrasts with the beginning of the capitalist era, the period of its struggle with feudalism, when the national liberation movement was headed by the urban bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. To be sure, even today, the bourgeoisie takes quite an active part in the national struggle, as does the proletariat. None of the attempts yet made to remove the proletariat from the national movement, to place them outside or above it, has yielded definite results. Each class or group of course interprets the movement in its own way, but all participate in it.

National movements, in the modern acceptance of the term, appeared at the same time as capitalism itself. And they have appeared not because they were invented by one or another exploiting class of capitalist society for the interest or profit of that class (this feature is very important for national and other movements) , but because capitalism has involved the most closely knit and diverse groups of people in world trade and in a common economic—meaning a common spiritual—life. National movements are more closely associated with the progressive aspect of world capitalism than with its destructive tendencies, its exploitation and degradation of the national masses. This latter fact has a considerable impact on the development of national movements, but the movements, and their depth and pervasiveness among all classes of contemporary society, cannot be explained by this fact alone. No class, including the proletariat, fails to participate in national movements or to advance nationalist demands. Of course, this does not mean that all classes advance the same demands with the same force and enthusiasm. At different times and in different places various classes have espoused various national demands with varying force and obstinacy.

The two eras of national movements must be distinguished from the general historical point of view. The dividing line between these eras was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 which brought about the national unification of Germany. “There is, on the one hand, the period of the collapse of feudalism and absolutism, of the formation of the bourgeois-democratic society and state, when the national movements first became mass movements and through the press and through participation in representative institutions involved all classes of the population in political life. On the other is the period of fully formed capitalist states with long-established constitutional regimes and a highly developed antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie—a period which may be called the eve of capitalism’s downfall.

“The typical features of the first period are: the awakening of national movements and the involvement in them of the peasants, the most numerous and most sluggish sector of the population, through the struggle for political liberty generally, and for the rights of the nation in particular. The typical features of the second period are: the absence of bourgeois-democratic mass movements and the prominent position of the antagonism between the internationally united capital and the international working-class movement, this being due to the fact that developed capitalism brings closer together the nations that have already been involved in commercial intercourse and causes them to intermingle in an increasing degree.”

Lenin continues in the same vein: “Of course the two periods are not partitioned off from one another; there are numerous transitional links, as countries differ from one another in the rapidity of development of their national movement, in the national composition and distribution of their populations, and so on.”** In another place he gives the following classification of countries “with respect to the degree of their self-determination”:

  1. The advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States. Here the progressive bourgeois national movements have long since come to an end. Each of these “great” nations oppresses others in the colonies and at home.
  2. Eastern Europe: Austria, the Balkans, and especially Russia. Here bourgeois-democratic national movements have developed, and the struggle has intensified, particularly in the twentieth century.
  3. The semi-colonial countries, such as China, Persia, Turkey, and the colonies, with a combined population of one billion (moo million) . Here the bourgeois-democratic movements have either hardly begun or else have a long way to go.

The above description of the two periods in the history of national movements is evidently applicable only to countries of the first type, but even with respect to them, some limitations must be introduced. England falls in the second group of states with respect to the Irish question. And Norway’s separation from Sweden occurred in 1905, that is, only in the second period.

Again, the description of the second period as characterized by the “absence of mass democratic movements” can be regarded as accurate only within distinct limits. Of course there are no democratic mass movements where bourgeois-democratic movements have ended, where nationally homogeneous capitalist states have been formed, and where a constitutional order has been established—this is only a tautology. But where this has not occurred we see an altogether different phenomenon. We can call it an exception, if that is convenient, but an exception that violates the very rule.

The most characteristic point of difference between the two periods relates to the question: “Who heads the mass democratic movements?”

Formerly it was the bourgeoisie; now it is the proletariat. This is agreed in any discussion of democratic movements generally. But when it comes to that sub-variety of democratic movements which is the national-democratic or national-liberation movement, the objection is at once raised in international phrases that the working class, the proletariat, is an international class concerned with international problems, that it is indifferent to the national question, that the proletariat should pay no attention to national matters, and that nationalism is an invention of the bourgeoisie to deceive the proletariat. These accusations are all absolutely correct when used properly, but harmful if used to attack the essence of the national liberation question. For the gist of every national liberation question lies precisely in the fact that each nationality strives for the formation of its own independent sovereign state. Now what is, and should be, the attitude of the proletariat toward this aspiration to form a national state?

Historical experience shows that the proletariat participates directly in the national liberation movement and cannot stay away from it. It cannot be set aside, placed above the national movement, or in any other neutral position. And regardless of how many international phrases are used, the national question cannot be ignored. The task of the proletariat is not to ignore it, but to solve it. International social democracy has also proclaimed the “right of nations to self-determination,” that is, to the formation of sovereign, independent national states, as a way of solving the national question.

International social democracy set itself the task formerly performed by the bourgeoisie—when it was revolutionary, when it was destroying absolutism and feudalism.

“Social democracy inherited from bourgeois democracy the striving for a national state. Of course we are not bourgeois democrats, but we resemble them in viewing democracy as more than a trifle, as something superfluous and unnecessary. As the lowest class in the state, the proletariat can only assert its rights through democracy. But we do not share the illusion of bourgeois democracy that the proletariat will gain full rights when it does achieve democracy. Democracy is only the basis for the acquisition of its rights. The liberation struggle of the proletariat does not end with democracy but merely takes on a different form.

“Democracy is a vital necessity, not for the bourgeoisie, but precisely for the proletariat. The bourgeoisie has now renounced its former democratic ideals and, at the same time, the idea of a national state. Its present concept of the ideal state goes beyond the boundaries of the national state. It throws these survivals of liberalism into the warehouse of historical curiosities. But we have no reason to do this. We should not take the materialist interpretation of history to mean that the proletariat had to adopt the general tendencies of bourgeois development just because they are determined by economic relations. The proletariat has its own tendencies of development, which are no less economically determined, and it should follow them without worrying about whether or not they contradict bourgeois tendencies.”

Thus we see that national movements admit of only one solution —full democracy. And full democracy means the organization of sovereign and independent national states. This was true for the era of the destruction of feudalism and absolutism and the birth of bourgeois-democratic states. And it is also true for our own era, the era of imperialist capitalism, the eve of the birth of socialism. The same will be true for socialism. We see the past and the present, and we see what will be in the future. And in saying what things will be like under socialism we base ourselves not on what has already been accomplished but on that “tendency in the development of the proletariat” mentioned by Kautsky.

This is what Comrade N. Lenin states:

“Victorious socialism must necessarily establish full democracy and, consequently, not only introduce the complete equality of nations but also implement the right of oppressed nations to selfdetermination, i.e., their right to free political separation. Any socialist party whose activity now, during the revolution, and after victory does not make clear that it will liberate the enslaved nations and establish relations with them on the basis of a free union —and free union is a false phrase if it does not include the right to secession—would be betraying socialism.”

“Marx wrote in his Critique of the Gotha Programme: ‘Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of one into the other. In this period of political transition the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.’

“Hitherto this truth has been indisputable for socialists, and it includes recognition of the fact that the state will exist until victorious socialism develops into full communism. Engels’ dictum about the withering away of the state is well known.

“And since we are discussing the state, this means that we are also discussing its boundaries. In his article, ‘The Po and the Rhine,’ Engels writes, among other things, that during the course of historic a I development, which swallowed up a number of small and non-viable nations, the ‘boundaries of the great and viable European nations’ were increasingly determined by the ‘language and sympathies’ of the population. Engels calls these boundaries ‘natural.’

“Today, these democratically determined boundaries are being increasingly broken down by reactionary, imperialist capitalism. There is every indication that imperialism will bequeath its successor, socialism, a heritage of less democratic boundaries, a number of annexations in Europe and other parts of the world. It is to be supposed that victorious socialism, which will restore and implement full democracy all along the line, will refrain from demarcating state boundaries democratically and ignore the ‘sympathies’ of the population?”

In this we see how deeply and strongly the national liberation movements are linked to the progressive side of the world development of capitalism. Of course, the national liberation movement is not an exception among democratic movements and has other aspects which should not be forgotten. Of course it can be exploited by the bourgeoisie. It should be clear enough that we are speaking here of a “tendency which is to be followed, not blindly, but in full awareness.”

The Ukrainian movement does not appear to be a unique phenomenon in history, but it has assumed such vivid forms and developed in such a distinct and classical manner that it is very important for understanding the character, essence, and laws of development of national liberation movements in general. This study is, and will be, of not only theoretical interest. “Today, these democratically determined boundaries are being increasingly broken down by reactionary, imperialist capitalism [of the great and viable European ions whose boundaries were earlier being increasingly determined by the language and sympathies of the population—V. Sh.-R.]. There is every indication that imperialism will bequeath its successor, so( ialism, a heritage of less democratic boundaries, a number of annexaions in Europe and other parts of the world.”

The Ukrainian movement, along with others, will supply much material for working out the principles and tactics of the proletariat. While the proletariat’s attitude toward national movements has been, sip until recently, more negative, when it has to act as the “dominant class of the nation” it will be forced to adopt a positive policy. The Ukrainian nation inhabits an uninterrupted area from the Carpathians in the west almost to the river Don in the east, and from the Black Sea in the south to the line of the Prypiat in the north. The area of this territory is nearly 850,000 square kilometers.t Even if this figure is considered exaggerated, it will be clear that territorially the Ukraine does not fall among the smaller countries. Here are the areas of some of the larger states of the world without their colonies:


Territory Population
State Year (thousands of Sq.   K) (millions)
United States of America 1897 7,872 63
Turkey 1897 1,631 22.8
Austria-Hungary 1890 602 42.9
Germany 1895 476 52.3
France 1896 465 38.5
Spain 1887 450 17.6
England (including Ireland) 1891 275 38.1


And there are other states with territories of less than 400,000 square kilometers. So even if the Ukraine’s area were reduced by half, that is, if we took only the eight provinces (gubernias) of the former Russian Ukraine (Poltava, Kyiv [Kiev], Kharkiv [Kharkov], Katerynoslav [Ekaterinoslav], Chernyhiv [Chernigov], Volyn, Podillia [Podolia], Kherson) in which the Ukrainians comprise an absolute majority of the population, it would still be territorially comparable to France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Spain, and greater than any other European state except Russia.

We cannot say precisely how many people inhabit this territory, but an estimate of 35 million cannot be an exaggeration. Thus even with respect to population the Ukraine occupies approximately the same place among European states. The number is equally valid as an expression of the population of the territory where Ukrainians form an absolute or a preponderant majority or as an expression of the total Ukrainian population, including those living outside this territory.

For a better understanding of the character of the Ukrainian national movement, its class essence and its various forms, it will suffice to give information on the above eight provinces alone. They differ in no way from the rest of the territory, and their characteristics may thus be considered typical.

Of the 22 million persons inhabiting these provinces in 1897, 16.4 millions or 74.6 percent were Ukrainians, 2.4 millions or 10.7 per cent were Russians, 1.9 millions or 8.5 percent were Jews, 0.4 million or 1.9 percent were Germans, and 0.4 million or 1.9 percent were Poles.

Of the Ukrainians 90 percent are peasants, and the cities are inhabited predominantly by non-Ukrainians. The following are a few characteristic figures:


Percentage of Ukrainians in the Population
District Including the cities Without the cities
Poltava 88.7 98.7
Kremenchuh (Kremenchug) 80.8 98.2
Chernyhiv (Chernigov) 86.1 97.4
Kamianets Podilskyi (Kamenets Podolskii) 78.9 87.0
Kharkiv (Kharkov) 54.9 88.8
Kyiv (Kiev) 56.2 84.0
Katerynoslav (Ekaterinoslav) 55.7 74.1


For this reason one significant characteristic of the Ukrainian movement has been the opposition between the Ukrainian village and the non-Ukrainian city.

Furthermore, social contradictions have been clothed in national colors. Manufacturers, merchants, and landowners were usually either Russians, Poles, Jews, Germans, or Ukrainians of the Skoropadski type. The Ukrainian noble strata had been russified or polonized during the preceding two and one-half centuries. Only during the revolution, when the strength of the national movement became clear to everyone, did some landowners begin to recall their Ukrainian ancestry. All of the grand bourgeoisie—landowners, merchants, entrepreneurs, and bankers—had close ties with Russia because of profitable business interests. Separation of the Ukraine brought them only clear loss. And when the landowners and capitalists now do everything possible to regenerate the one and indivisible Russia, they show a much better understanding of their own interests than Comrade Kulyk imagines.

It could, of course, be maintained that the aristocratic intelligentsia has played a prominent role, especially in the early stages of the new Ukrainian movement in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Thus one could “write history” as follows: I. Kotliarevskii’s Aeneid “gave birth” to the Ukrainian national movement. And Kotliarevskii was (1) of the intelligentsia, (2) a bureaucrat and high official of the Poltava governor-general, and (3) concerned with the problems of landowners (he was an official for special assignments of the governor-general who was himself a landowner). Ergo, as early as the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century the landowners and intelligentsia foresaw the 1917 revolution, and the fear of this proletarian revolution forced them to seek shelter. Their prognostications came true, and we see them first seeking refuge with the Central Rada and then dispersing it and setting up Skoropadski! But this made the productive forces angry, and Shevchenko was made a soldier while Minister Valuev3 (who was clever, even though a landowner!) said: There were no Ukrainians, there are none now and there will be none in the future!

No, the Ukrainian movement depended mainly on the village and was led by an intelligentsia in constant communication with the village. The Ukrainian workers also played an important role in awakening and activating the national consciousness of the peasants and maintained contact with the village. The Ukrainian worker felt the national oppression on his own neck.

The central figure of Ukrainian literature and of the intelligentsia is Taras Shevchenko, son of a peasant serf. Throughout the century Ukrainian literature and art bore a primarily rustic character. It depicted peasant life, took its heroes from the village, and was imbued with a deep and sincere love of the illiterate, browbeaten, and helpless village population. Not from the national character but through a consideration of the Ukrainian people’s exceedingly difficult and abnormal living conditions can one understand the idealistic enthusiasm which runs like a red thread through the history of Ukrainian literature and social thought and of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. The role and character of the intelligentsia in the Ukrainian national liberation movement is better understood if compared with that of the Russian intelligentsia in the general history of the revolutionary destruction of serfdom and despotism. Not in vain did they live together under the roof of the tsarist autocracy!

It was hard work! The enslaved village was silent, only occasionally sending out its sons to anounce that

The species has not perished, The country is still alive.

But conditions changed at the beginning of this century. The capitalism which invaded the Ukraine with a clattering and whistling of locomotives and a wailing of factory sirens also aroused the village. The Ukraine was lighted up by the glowing coal of the blast furnaces; the straw-thatched villages were set afire by the sparks from locomotives and factory chimneys. It is no accident that the rise of capitalist production in the Ukraine, the peasant insurrections in Poltava and Kharkiv (Kharkov) provinces, the divisions among Ukrainian groups along party lines, and the advent of an urban type of literature (particularly in the writings of the talented V. Vynnychenko) all occurred at the same time. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” That very same 7o percent of coal, 99 percent of beams and channels, 79 percent of rails, and 68 percent of shaped iron with which the Katerynoslavians attempt to strangle and bury the Ukrainian movement were the base of this movement. Ukrainian independence rests precisely on this industry, and not on any higher feelings (“in them, for them”) of these or other “benefactors.” The same combined enterprises which the Katerynoslavians use to offer the Ukrainian people a combined unity will see to it that the Katerynoslavians are left with combined enterprises made up of their own fingers.

We know that revolution rejects all that is superficial and conventional and reveals the sources of deep springs and forces. A revolution is an examination. What do we learn from the revolutionary national liberation movement?

As early as May, 1918, we wrote (in a book which was never published) :

The national movement for the first time gives evidence of its own vigor and strength. Before the revolution the general attitude was that the Ukrainian movement was the invention of an eccentric “Little Russian” intelligentsia, was incompatible with the interests of a majority of the population, had no mass following, and was not supported by any wide circles of “Little Russian” citizens. The movement was considered as limited to so-called cultural demands: schools in Ukrainian, free use of both spoken and printed Ukrainian, etc. The desire for autonomy, for the organization of Ukrainians into a political unit, was viewed as “separatism,” “an Austrian orientation,” “supported by German marks” in order to arrive at the police deduction: “grab ’em and hold ’em.” Although formerly one might have thought that the Ukrainian movement could not pass beyond literary, cultural, and educational matters, since t he revolution only those who are hopelessly ignorant of its real relation to political life can call the Ukrainian movement a “bourgeois invention” or can advance such petty arguments as that the peasants understand Russian better than “Galician” and so on. These views would not be so annoying if held only by the common people, but it is regrettable that even those in high positions in our party7 advocate them even after the proclamation of the Ukrainian Republic.

Only the blind can fail to see that the movement has cm braced the broadest and deepest circles of Ukrainian citizens and has revealed their general desire to become not only a cultural, linguistic, and ethnographic group, but also a sovereign political nation. The initial demands for national territorial autonomy and then for republican status in a Federated Russia evoked a broad and immediate response.

All congresses—peasant, worker, military, party, professional, or educational, whether All-Ukrainian, regional, or district—have unanimously adopted this objective.

The power of this movement for rebirth of the nation in statehood has been so unexpected that even the leaders of t he movement can hardly give it suitable political expression. The movement has also been very influential in Galicia and has awakened the desire to do away with the border dividing the two parts of the Ukrainian nation.

It can be stated with certainty that the Ukraine will not agree to die, or to accept national captivity, regardless of what misfortunes may befall it. This should be kept in mind by every party working in the Ukraine.

The will to organize the Ukraine as a state-political unit within ethnographic boundaries is an incontrovertible fact.

What “ideological” elements enter into the Ukrainian movement?

First, the language. One’s native language, one’s own word, evoke the deepest national feelings. Every Ukrainian has loved his native tongue. In it are historical memories, songs, literature, and also the social-national protest of a people using a “peasant” language against those speaking “noble” languages (Russian or Polish) . It contains a vision of equality with the “noble” nations. It contains the recognition of national unity: we are Ukrainians above everything else.

There were recollections of the historic past—the Cossack campaigns, the struggles with Poland and Muscovy—whose strength was a source of delight. Others—the Petrograd erected on Cossack bones—awoke bitter feelings about a greater culture and enlightenment in the past.

There was protest against socioeconomic and national-political oppression by the Russians, Poles, Rumanians, and Hungarians who were the large landowners, merchants, manufacturers, and officials.

There was protest against the city which leads a luxurious life on the power and money it derives from the village and gives hardly anything in return.

Among Ukrainians there was a desire to organize their own land fund, to increase production, to raise their culture to a higher level.

There was protest against the centralism and imperialism which returned to the Ukraine only half of the taxes which it paid.

There was the desire to exercise one’s own will and power in one’s own house.”

Ukrainians felt that they represented the only democracy in the Ukraine—in contrast to the other nationalities which they viewed as autocratic.

“We have no bourgeoisie, only democracy.”

“We have only socialist parties!”

In the detailed memorandum sent to the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies we read:

“The ruling circles of the Ukraine are not Ukrainian. Industry is in the hands of the Russian, Jewish, and French bourgeoisie, and the capitalist traders, together with a large proportion of the agrarian bourgeoisie are Poles and Ukrainians who have long since called themselves ‘Russians’ [italics ours]. Similarly, administrative posts are all in the hands of non-Ukrainians.

“But the exploited strata—the peasantry, a majority of the urban proletariat, the artisans, and petty officials—are Ukrainians. Hence, at the present time there is no Ukrainian bourgeoisie [italics in the memorandum] which considers itself Ukrainian. Although the class interests of some individuals and small groups are identical with those of the economically dominant classes, no bourgeois class, we repeat, exists.

“This is why no Ukrainian party has yet failed to include the idea of socialism in its platform.”

What forms did this movement take? How did it make itself noticed?

Through gigantic rallies, mainly of soldiers, in places such as Kiev and Petrograd where there were many Ukrainians; through thousands of peasant congresses, military congresses, and workers’ educational, cultural, and party congresses; through meetings in villages, cities, railroad yards, and factories.

And at times of particular tension it took the form of near-insurrections. There were three such occasions: in the early days of June when Defense Minister Kerenski forbade the convocation of the Second Military Congress, and it assembled in spite of him (the upshot of this “peaceful” insurrection was the proclamation of the First Universal and the declaration of autonomy) —then during the October revolution when the Third Military Congress carried with it the vacillating Central Rada (resulting in the Third Universal and the proclamation of the Republic) —and finally there was the insurrection against the “Bolshevik Russian” government and the Fourth Universal proclaiming independence and appealing to the “German people” (in reality, to Kaiser Wilhelm, Hindenburg, and Hertling) for help against the “Russians” and “Bolsheviks” …

We have not even mentioned the newspapers, proclamations, announcements, and so forth.

But after all this has happened some people still call it an “invention”—a “bourgeois invention” perhaps, but an “invention” nonetheless!

In the same way the Cadet Rech, and even the left-wing Zimmerwaldists in Berner Tagwacht, called the Irish insurrection a “Putsch.”

Here is what N. Lenin wrote about this “Putsch,” this “invention”:

“The term ‘putsch’ [and `invention], in its scientific sense, may be employed only when the attempted insurrection is exposed as nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs who have aroused no sympathy among the masses. The centuries-old Irish movement, after passing through various stages and combinations of class interest, manifested itself, in particular, in a massive Irish National Congress in America (Vorwaerts, March 20, 1916) which called for Irish independence; it also took the form of street fighting by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a `putsch’ [or an `invention] is either a hardened reactionary or a doctrinaire, hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.”

The Ukrainian people as a nation, regardless of class, have expressed their will with respect to self-determination and their political status.

In tens and hundreds of resolutions at meetings, at congresses of various kinds, large and small, in the party and the public press, in demonstrations on an imposing scale, in armed clashes—the desire has everywhere been expressed to:

  1. Organize themselves as a state-political nation.
  2. Unite the various Ukrainian lands and regions in which there is a Ukrainian majority, regardless of existing political boundaries, into a united Ukrainian Republic.
  3. Declare themselves for an independent republic not in theory but through personal experience and through the course of events.

This we wrote eight months ago.


February 23, 2015

Sometimes the boss is much stronger

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

In the initial few days after Syriza took office, there was a sense that this would be a different kind of government since both its words and deeds appeared to be a break from the past. Alexis Tsipras announced that privatization of the Piraeus port would be halted and that the minimum wage would be restored, while Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis spoke of challenging austerity up and down the line.

But when Syriza sat down with the EU kapos, reality came as a slap in the face as it would appear from its willingness to accede to a continuation of business as usual. Was there going to be any difference between Syriza and PASOK? Its left critics, from the KKE to Antarsya, now seemed vindicated.

Apparently, Yanis Varoufakis has furnished Greece’s overlords with a 5-page “reform” proposal that includes the minimum wage hike, something that will undoubtedly irk the Germans. Varoufakis claims that if the proposal is refused, the deal will be “dead and buried”. We will obviously find out more later on.

In their readiness to characterize Syriza as PASOK redux, the left seems to have suffered a short-term memory loss. When PASOK’s Costas Simitis took office in 1996 with about the same percentage of the vote that Syriza just received, he moved rapidly to implement a “modernization” program that would be crowned by entry into the Eurozone. Marxist economist Stavros Mavroudeas outlined PASOK’s program as follows in “Greece and the EU: capitalist crisis and imperialist rivalries” :

The economic policies of the Simitis governments of PASOK hold a special place in this canvas of neo-liberal restructuring. With its religious adherence to the EMU requirements and rules it expanded and deepened furthermore the neoliberal policies. In order to achieve entrance to the EMU it instituted austerity at the expense of labour as wage costs had lag behind productivity increases. It repeatedly and systematically reformed labour law in the direction of deregulation and flexibility (introduction of part-time, extended part-time ‘arrangements’ of working time, private firms hiring and lending workers, weakening of collective bargaining etc.). It expanded privatisation programmes and also provided even more space within the Greek economy to foreign capitals. It reformed the welfare system curtailing benefits even though it failed – due to strong strike action – to proceed even further. Finally, it facilitated actively two major one-off acts of income redistribution from the working and middle classes to capital. The first was the so-called ‘stock-exchange theft’ in which savings from the popular and middle classes were systematically driven by 12 government’s economic policy to a stock market bubble.

In other words, with no pressure at all applied on PASOK from German bankers, it plunged ahead with an economic program that would eventually turn into the disaster of the past five years at least. PASOK was ideologically disposed to neoliberalism. It, like Tony Blair’s Labour Party, believed that Greece could move forward through an application of free market economics that had been embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. In the mid-90s, both Jeffrey Sachs and Milton Friedman preached the benefits of deregulation, privatization, reduction in government spending, trade agreements such as the WTO, and all the rest.

After these policies led to widespread suffering, the Eurocommunists of Syriza began running election campaigns denouncing these policies but also helped to organize mass protests against the New Democracy/PASOK government that was determined to “stay the course”.

Finally, after the Greeks could no longer put up with the same old shit, they voted Syriza into office with the hope that austerity might be reversed. There was little doubt that if Syriza could have had access to H.G. Wells’s time-machine, it would have gone back to 1996 and put the kibosh on Simitis’s plans, knowing what they would lead to. But instead, given the reality that time-machines do not exist, they have to play with the cards they were dealt. If they had anticipated the ferocity of the German response, as well as the willingness of France’s “Socialist” Party to back the Germans, maybe they would have decided not to run for office. Would the Greeks have been no better off with a party in office like PASOK that saw the world in exactly the same terms as German bankers? I doubt it. At least they now have a party with a readiness to fight even if it is a bantamweight in the ring with a super-heavyweight. We should never forget that Greece’s GDP in 2014 was only a bit more than Volkswagen’s revenues. Maybe the left is looking for a lucky punch. Who knows?

Some on the left have accused me of endorsing TINA because I have cast doubt on the merits of withdrawing from the EU and adopting the drachma, the solution urged by the KKE and Antarsya. Supposedly, this would be the best response to austerity being imposed from the outside even if there would be some initial pain. I suppose the analogy is to having a tooth removed but without Novocain, sort of like Tom Hanks’s self-administered oral surgery with an ice-skate blade in “Cast Away”. Just in case you haven’t thought through such a strategy, this is worth considering:

Argentina scenario: Populism continuously erodes economic foundations

The devaluation of Greece’s new currency, for all its potential positive impacts on cost competitiveness, would have a devastating effect on the living standards of Greece’s poor and middle classes, who would be faced with massive inflation.

Wealthier households have probably already parked and protected their money abroad and could benefit from the devaluation by repatriating part of their funds to buy up assets on the cheap.

However, the less well-off have little to park and repatriate. Instead, their drachma incomes would be insufficient to pay for imported food and energy.

For example, Greek food imports account for 12% of total imports, compared to only 7% in Germany. Much of that could probably be substituted with domestic produce, but that might not alleviate price pressures much as Greek farmers would prefer to sell their produce abroad at higher prices, too.

To alleviate the pain, the government might be tempted to try to restore political capital by using its newfound monetary independence to print the money it needs for a lavish social assistance program and public sector job creation. The central bank would lend directly to the government, thus creating permanent inflation.

Price controls for food and other goods may artificially contain official inflation rates, but may outsource the problem to the black market. Greece’s inflation would likely remain in double-digit territory, while the government would try to ensure its survival by blaming the rich for the failures and for keeping their money abroad.

Many in Syriza have such leanings, not least the party’s chief economist, John Milios, who advocates the monetization of government debt in the Eurozone as a whole.

This is the Argentina or Venezuela scenario. However, those countries can rely on their natural resources to bring in hard currency.

While I find this presentation of the consequences of an exit from the Eurozone useful, it fails to consider the shortcomings of the “Argentina or Venezuela scenario”. I know a bit more about Argentina than most on the left after having edited my wife’s article on Kirchner’s economic policies, maybe even some of Syriza’s leaders who were at one time considering it as an example.

It so happens, first of all, that Argentina’s economic growth was probably not related to a commodities export boom as Mark Weisbrot explained. Although, it certainly helped that it had soybeans and cattle for sale, while Greece’s agricultural has collapsed, largely as a result of New Democracy and PASOK’s willingness to sacrifice the nation’s agriculture at the altar of neoliberalism.

What is clear is that Argentina’s economy has been shrinking. The Economist reported on June 27, 2014:

Many of Argentina’s problems are familiar. Inflation has plagued Argentina for much of the past decade; it still grew by an average of 5.6% from 2005-2013. Exchange and trade controls have long made it hard to get hold of primary materials, stifling production. But whereas in the past Argentina could maintain growth by propping up the peso and consumers’ purchasing power, falling foreign-exchange reserves mean it can no longer afford to do so.

If you think that Argentina has problems with inflation and falling foreign-exchange reserves, then wait until what you see if Greece is forced to leave the EU.

I don’t think there’s much to be said about Venezuela except that its welfare state guarantees are being undermined by the falling price of oil. This has led to a political crisis that even some of its most committed supporters worry about. For example, there’s an article on Venezuela Analysis that decries the rise in gasoline prices (http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11220). Perhaps the government has no alternative to this. Oh, my gosh. Did I say there is no alternative? There I go again echoing Margaret Thatcher.

I am probably more sensitive to the question of how difficult it is for radical governments to move forward presiding over capitalist or mixed economies after spending a good five years or so on the board of Tecnica, a solidarity organization that had close relations to Paul Oquist, Daniel Ortega’s Yanis Varoufakis, and Alejandro Bendaña, the FSLN’s Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry and our organization’s responsable.

In 1990, the FSLN was voted out of office because the Reagan administration had finally succeeded in making the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”, just as the filthy German bankers and finance ministers are trying to do to the Greeks. Some on the left denounced the Sandinistas for not “going all the way” like the Cubans. Why didn’t the FSLN seize all the farms and ranches and divided up the land and given it to the peasants? Of course, it didn’t matter if supporters of the FSLN owned half of these farms and ranches and that this would turn them against the revolution.

In reality, the FSLN was confronted by intractable problems, mostly the result of outside imperial forces having much more economic power and little respect for another nation’s sovereignty, especially when the smaller and weaker nation was serving the same role as fresh bodies to a vampire.

At the time, I gave a lot of thought to the quandary that the FSLN faced. With all proportions guarded, I recommend thinking about this the next time leftists propose eazy peazy solutions to the Greeks. Here is what I wrote a while back reflecting on the conundrums the Sandinistas faced:

In the article “Historic Opportunity being lost” that appears in the book “The Rise and Fall of the Nicaraguan Revolution”, SWP leader Larry Seigle renders his verdict on the Sandinista revolution: “The opportunity to extend the socialist revolution, the opportunity to join with Cuba in constructing socialism, is being lost. Unless there is a fundamental reversal of the course–unless the anticapitalist direction and actions of the early years of the revolution are reasserted–the government will be restructured and consolidated on the basis of the capitalist property relations that exist.”

If the Sandinistas abandoned their original revolutionary project, the question then becomes one of what caused their retreat? Was this shift to the right attributable primarily to factors within Nicaragua or was it caused by external pressure? If it is a combination of the two factors, how much weight should we attribute to each? The FLN in Algeria caved in to pressures from the Algerian bourgeoisie. Should we group the FSLN with the FLN? Did the Sandinistas succumb to pressures from COSEP, the coalition that represented the wealthy Nicaraguan industrialists and farmers?

(In examining the question of whether counterrevolution took place in Nicaragua, perhaps it would be more correct to say that only a partial counterrevolution took place. There are, after all, some conquests of the revolution that remain intact. Many peasants still farm land that they won in 1980. Students do not have to worry about being dragged from their bed in the middle of the night by the cops, taken to the outskirts of town, and shot. All this is true. However, Nicaragua today is a place where social and economic misery reign. The global capitalist marketplace limits what Nicaragua can do. It will not be able to achieve genuine progress whether Ortega or his opponent wins the next election. This certainly is not what Carlos Fonseca founded the FSLN to accomplish.)

In a very real sense, the gains of the Nicaraguan revolution were partially responsible for their undoing. The Agrarian Reform, in particular, caused traditional class relations in the countryside to fracture. Agricultural workers and poor campesinos no longer had to sell their labor at the cheapest price to the wealthy landowner. This, in turn, led to lower production of agricultural commodities.

George Vickers pointed these contradictions out in an article in the June 1990 “NACLA Report on the Americas” entitled “A Spider’s Web.” He noted that the Agrarian Reform provided a reduction in rents, greater access to credit and improved prices for basic grains. This meant that small peasants had no economic pressure on them to do the backbreaking work of harvesting export crops on large farms. Even when wages increased on these large farms, the campesino avoided picking cotton on the large farms. Who could blame them?

This meant that the 1980-1981 cotton harvest, which usually lasts from December through March, remained uncompleted until May. Each of the three subsequent coffee and cotton harvests suffered as well. The labor shortage became even more acute as the Contra war stepped up and rural workers were drafted into the Sandinista army.

In addition, Nicaragua faced the same type of contradictions between town and countryside that existed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. It was difficult to keep both urban proletariat and peasant satisfied due to conflicting class interests of each sector. While both classes fought to overthrow Czarism or Somoza, their interests tended to diverge after the revolution stabilized.

In 1985, the Agrarian Reform distributed 235,000 acres of land to the peasantry. This represented about 75% of all the land distributed to peasants since 1980. The purpose of this land distribution was twofold. It served to undercut the appeal of the Contras to some campesinos, since land hunger would no longer act as an irritant against the government in Managua. Daniel Ortega would simultaneously give a peasant title to the land and a rifle to defend it in ceremonies in the countryside all through 1985.

The second purpose of this land grant was to guarantee ample food delivery into the cities. This would allow the government to end food subsidies. The urban population had enjoyed a minimum of basic foodstuffs at highly subsidized prices. These price subsidies fueled budget deficits and, consequently, caused inflation.

The hope of the Sandinistas was that increases from new farm production from the countryside would compensate for the ending of food subsidies. However, what did occur was a sharp convergence between the price of subsidized food and food for sale in the retail markets. A pound of beans at the subsidized price was 300 cordobas, while retail market prices reached 8,000 cordobas. The subsidized breadbasket became a fiction while marketplace food became the harsh reality. Managua housewives became outraged as hunger and malnutrition among the poorest city-dwellers grew rapidly. The underlying cause of the high price of food was the shortage of supply. Contra attacks on food- producers, large and small exacerbated the shortage.

What was the solution to Nicaraguan hunger? Was the solution to shift to the left and attack the rural bourgeoisie? Should the Sandinistas have expropriated the cattle ranchers, cotton farmers and coffee plantations and turned the land into small farms for bean and corn production? This would have meant that foreign exchange would no longer be available for purchase of imported manufactured goods, including medicine, machinery and guns. Nicaraguan coffee is marketable overseas, while beans are not.

The simple reality was that the Sandinistas could not find a solution to Nicaragua’s economic problems within Nicaragua itself. Facing a US trade embargo, it grew to depend heavily on outside assistance. The story of outside assistance was not one to bolster revolutionary morale. From July 1979 through December 1987, the nation received almost $6 billion in credits and outright donations. The US pressured other Western nations to cut back aid, but Soviet aid increased steadily from 1979 to 1987 until it amounted to $3.3 billion. Soviet aid was at a high point in 1985 when it gave Nicaragua $1 billion in assistance, but it dropped by 60% from 1985 to 1986, and declined further in 1987.

Foreign assistance could simply not overcome the ravages of inflation within the country. In 1988, the crisis reached its deepest intensity. The Sandinistas introduced an IMF-styled austerity program in February 1988 and repeated with more cruelty in June. It hit the working- class and peasantry hardest. The bourgeoisie did not feel the impact of these anti-inflationary measures. The government gave them preferential treatment in the hope that Nicaraguan agribusiness would step up production. The austerity program, as harsh as it was, did not work. In December of that year, inflation was up to 33,000%, exacerbated by the effects of a powerful Hurricane. The end result was a bankrupt “informal” sector of the economy and widespread resentment toward the government. Meanwhile, the pampered bourgeoisie continued its attack on the “Communist” Sandinistas, no matter how inappropriate this epithet had become.

What could have led the Sandinistas to embrace an IMF-inspired austerity program? For those of us who had visited Nicaragua and spoken to and become friends with Sandinistas, this came as something of a shock, but not one that should have been totally unexpected.

In September of 1988, Carlos Chamorro, the editor of the Sandinista newspaper “Barricada” tried to justify the new economic orientation. He wrote, “the new economic policy has invalidated a series of concepts that for years represented…a road map towards…the Revolution’s economic agenda…’Social control,’ ‘secure channels,’ ‘price controls,’ ‘government subsidy,’ ‘preferential prices for the peasantry,’ etc., are banners of a bygone era that has been left behind by reality.” While he worried that the sectors of the society most hurt by the changes, namely those who don’t own or run businesses, would turn against the revolution, they agreed that the “change was unassailable and necessary.”

Sandinista embrace of the marketplace does not take place in a political vacuum. It takes place within the context of Perestroika. In October 1988 Andrei Kozyrev, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared. Roger Chamorro of Barricada undoubtedly was privy to these discussions..

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua. (This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s recently published “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become know as the “Reagan Doctrine”.)

When the Contra war ended, the USSR began to cut aid to Nicaragua dramatically. It thought that Nicaragua could go it alone and urged it to rely more on Latin American countries like Venezuela and Mexico. It also made these suggestions at the same time a new foreign policy statement came out of the Kremlin that considered all governments in Latin America as legitimate, regardless of regime type. Nicaragua and Peru, in this light, had equal legitimacy.

These intense political and economic pressures had their desired effect. The Sandinista leadership adopted a political outlook that was in line with “new thinking” in the USSR. After years of revolution and civil war, they had become exhausted and isolated. They had seen their nation brutalized by endless “low intensity warfare,” which to this tiny nation was of very high intensity. The vast changes that took place in the entire Soviet bloc had to have an impact on Nicaragua. It is utopian to think that it could not. It was just another victim in the powerful imperialist campaign to eradicate any non-capitalist economy. Only Cuba, Vietnam and China have remained socialist, but each country exhibits the same kind of deformations that Nicaragua began to exhibit in 1989. Initiatives in private enterprise in each country have begun to create an elite that lives extremely well, while workers and peasants suffer.

The accusation that the Nicaragua revolutionaries betrayed the possibility to move toward socialism is absurd. We can certainly say that the Sandinistas abandoned a revolutionary perspective, but the pressures on them to do so were extremely powerful. They did not forsake revolution because of common class interests with the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, but because world capitalism and a rightward moving Soviet bureaucracy beat it into submission. The Nicaraguan revolution failed for the same reason that strikes sometimes fail: The boss is much stronger.

February 22, 2015

Erwin Baur interview, part 3

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 11:47 pm

In this segment, the following topics are covered:

–How Erwin Baur ended up as a civilian during WWII.

–Walter Reuther, Melvin Bishop, and red-baiting in the UAW.

–Cannon: the Cochranites had “capitulated” to Stalinism.

–Trotsky’s predictions versus post-WWII realities; Cannon’s clique.

–Assessing the Cochranite legacy.

Clark Terry, Influential Jazz Trumpeter, Dies at 94

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

NY Times, February 22, 2015

Clark Terry, Influential Jazz Trumpeter, Dies at 94

Clark Terry, one of the most popular and influential jazz trumpeters of his generation and an enthusiastic advocate of jazz education, has died at age 94.

His death was announced late Saturday by his wife, Gwen. She did not say where he died or provide any other details.

Mr. Terry was acclaimed for his impeccable musicianship, loved for his playful spirit and respected for his adaptability. Although his sound on both trumpet and the rounder-toned flugelhorn (which he helped popularize as a jazz instrument) was highly personal and easily identifiable, he managed to fit it snugly into a wide range of musical contexts.

He was one of the few musicians to have worked with the orchestras of both Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He was for many years a constant presence in New York’s recording studios — accompanying singers, sitting in big-band trumpet sections, providing music for radio and television commercials. He recorded with Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and other leading jazz artists as well as his own groups.


Clark Terry in 2003.CreditTodd Feeback/Associated Press

He was also one of the first black musicians to hold a staff position at a television network, and one of the most high-profile proponents of teaching jazz at the college level.

His fellow musicians respected him as an inventive improviser with a graceful and ebullient style, traces of which can be heard in the playing of Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and others. But many listeners knew him best for the vocal numbers with which he peppered his performances, a distinctively joyous brand of scat singing in which noises as well as nonsense syllables took the place of words. It was an off-the-cuff recording of one such song, released in 1964 under the name “Mumbles,” that became his signature song.

The high spirits of “Mumbles” were characteristic of Mr. Terry’s approach: More than most jazz musicians of his generation, he was unafraid to fool around. His sense of humor manifested itself in his onstage demeanor as well as in his penchant for growls, slurs and speechlike effects.

Musicians and critics saw beyond the clowning and recognized Mr. Terry’s seriousness of purpose. Stanley Crouch wrote in The Village Voice in 1983 that Mr. Terry “stands as tall in the evolution of his horn as anyone who has emerged since 1940.”

The seventh of 11 children, Clark Terry was born into a poor St. Louis family on Dec. 14, 1920. His mother, the former Mary Scott, died when he was 6, and within a few years he was working odd jobs to help support his family. He became interested in music when he heard the husband of one of his sisters play tuba, and when he was 10 he built himself a makeshift trumpet by attaching a funnel to a garden hose. Neighbors later pitched in to buy him a trumpet from a pawn shop.

His father, Clark Virgil Terry, discouraged his interest in music, fearing that there was no future in it, but he persisted. He played valve trombone and trumpet in his high school orchestra and secured his first professional engagement, which paid 75 cents a night, with the help of his tuba-playing brother-in-law.

His career got off to a bumpy start. After working with local bands like Dollar Bill and His Small Change, he joined a traveling carnival and found himself stranded in Hattiesburg, Miss., when it ran out of money.

In 1942 he joined the Navy and was assigned to the band at the Great Lakes Training Station near Chicago. When the war ended, he returned to St. Louis and joined a big band led by George Hudson.

“George put the full weight of the band on me,” he told the jazz historian Stanley Dance in 1961. “I played all the lead and all the trumpet solos, rehearsed the band, suggested numbers, routines and everything.”

The regimen paid off: When the Hudson band played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Mr. Terry’s work was heard by some of the most important people in jazz, and he soon had offers. He worked briefly with the bands of the saxophonist Charlie Barnet and the blues singer and saxophonist Eddie Vinson, among others, before joining Count Basie in 1948. Times were getting tough for big bands in the postwar years, and Basie reduced his group from 18 pieces to a sextet in 1950, but he retained Mr. Terry. The next year, Duke Ellington called.

It was the opportunity he had been waiting for. Working with Basie, he would say many times, was a valuable experience, but it was like going to prep school; his ultimate goal was to enroll in “the University of Ellingtonia.”

Nonetheless, after close to a decade with the Ellington band, he decided it was time to move on. “I wanted to be more of a soloist,” he said, “but it was a seniority thing. There were about 10 guys ahead of me.”

In late 1959 he joined a big band being formed by Quincy Jones, who not that many years earlier, as a youngster, had taken a few trumpet lessons from him. The original plan was for the band to appear in a stage musical called “Free and Easy,” with music by Harold Arlen. But the show folded during a tryout in Paris, and Mr. Terry accepted an offer to join NBC-TV’s in-house corps of musicians.

The first black musician to land such a job at NBC, he soon became familiar to late-night viewers as a member of the band on “The Tonight Show,” led for most of his time there by Doc Severinsen. He also led a popular quintet with the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and worked as a sideman with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and others.

When Johnny Carson began his popular “Stump the Band” feature on “The Tonight Show,” in which members of the studio audience tried to come up with song titles that no one in the band recognized, Mr. Terry would often claim to know the song in question and then bluff his way through a bluesy half-sung, half-mumbled number of his own spontaneous invention.

He recorded one such joking vocal in 1964, as part of an album he cut with the pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio. As he recalled it, the song, “Mumbles,” was recorded only because the session had gone so smoothly that the musicians had extra studio time on their hands. Much to his surprise he found himself with a hit.

When “The Tonight Show” moved to the West Coast in 1972, Mr. Terry stayed in New York. Jazz was at something of a low ebb commercially, but he managed to stay busy both in and out of the studios and even found work for a 17-piece band he had formed in 1967. Between 1978 and 1981 he took the band to Asia, Africa, South America and Europe under the auspices of the State Department. Most of his concert and nightclub work, though, was as the leader of a quartet or quintet.

Mr. Terry also became active in jazz education, appearing at high school and college clinics, writing jazz instruction books and running a summer jazz camp. He was an adviser to the International Association of Jazz Educators and chairman of the academic council of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. For many years he was also an adjunct professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., to which he donated his archive of instruments, sheet music, correspondence and memorabilia in 2004.

Mr. Terry was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1991 and was given a lifetime achievement award by the Recording Academy in 2010. A variety of health problems forced him to cut down on touring in the 1990s, but he remained active into the new century. He was appearing in New York nightclubs as recently as 2008, doing more singing than playing but with his spirit intact.

And he continued to be a mentor to young musicians after his performing days were over. An acclaimed 2014 documentary, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” directed by Alan Hicks, told the story of his relationship with a promising young pianist, Justin Kauflin, whom Mr. Terry first taught at William Paterson, and with whom he continued to work even after being hospitalized.

“The only way I knew how to keep going,” Mr. Terry wrote in his autobiography, “Clark,” published in 2011, “was to keep going.”


February 20, 2015

German racists seek to build “anti-imperialist” bloc with Russia

Filed under: Germany,mechanical anti-imperialism,racism — louisproyect @ 4:26 pm

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The magazine Compact represents Elsässer’s longstanding attempt to coalesce an “anti-imperialist” bloc around a phantasmal Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis to counter American hegemony. Nonetheless, since anti-Muslim racism serves at the moment as the point of convergence for these different forces, it makes sense to sketch the function of racist discourse directed at Muslims in Germany over the last few years.

Writing in 2007, the sociologist Georg Klauda noted that a specifically anti-Muslim racism in Germany remained confined primarily to the intelligentsia:

Islamophobia has, at least in this country, its relevance not as a mass phenomenon, but as an elite discourse, which, shared by considerable numbers of leftist, liberal, and conservative intelligentsia, makes possible the articulation of resentments against immigrants and anti-racists in a form which allows one to appear as a shining champion of the European enlightenment.

While this statement was undoubtedly true in the context it was written seven years ago, what Pegida represents is the transformation of anti-Muslim racism from an elite discourse into a mass phenomenon, something capable of mobilizing large demonstrations of more than 20,000 people.

Elsässer began publishing books and articles arguing for the constitution of a “Berlin-Paris-Moscow axis” in opposition to Washington. After a series of explicitly nationalist interventions got him booted, successively, from pretty much every major left-wing publication of note, Elsässer started Compact, thus creating a coherent ideological center for a new type of far-right politics: resolutely German nationalist, explicitly adopting traditional far-right tropes against “finance capital,” positing the formation of a “Eurasian” power axis as a counterpole to the United States, and resolutely anti-immigrant in terms of domestic policy while supporting “anti-imperialist” countries such as Iran or Syria abroad.

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Can Pacifica be saved?

Filed under: Pacifica — louisproyect @ 1:53 pm

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Matt Lasar has an article in the Nation titled “Can Pacifica be Saved?” (http://www.thenation.com/article/197825/pacifica-radio-worth-saving) That’s a good question. Lasar doesn’t talk much about the programming, mostly about the dysfunctional financial/organizational setup.

I sort of gave up on WBAI, the NYC affiliate of Pacifica, about a decade ago but still have it preset on my Boston Audio tabletop radio (a fantastic piece of electronics) in between two sports stations, WFAN and ESPN. While going between WFAN and ESPN last night, I thought I’d give the station 30 seconds of my time.

A guy was giving a talk about how rotten “the system” was in the USA focused on the two-party system and its major donors, Koch on one side and Soros on the other. He pronounced Koch as “Katch” rather than “Coke”, which I thought was odd but not nearly as odd as his take on Soros. He said that Soros was trying to make people “dumb” so that they would be more obedient and the way he was doing that was by promoting marijuana. He supposedly wanted it to be dispensed in high schools. Now the truth is that Soros’s fight against repressive drug laws is one of the best things his foundation does.

I kept it on until they announced the name of the speaker. It turned out to be Webster Tarpley, a former member of the Larouche cult who has made a name for himself as a conspiracy theorist par excellence. Here’s some info on him from Wikipedia:

“Tarpley maintains that the September 11 attacks were engineered by a rogue network of the military-industrial complex and intelligence agencies as a false flag operation.

“On November 21, 2011, while traveling to Syria, Tarpley told Syria’s Addounia TV that the Syrian Civil War was a NATO-CIA ploy to destabilize Syria using mercenaries and death squads against the population and the Syrian government.”

Here are some of the books he has written:

–Obama – The Postmodern Coup: Making of a Manchurian Candidate

–Just Too Weird: Bishop Romney and the Mormon Takeover of America: Polygamy, Theocracy, and Subversion

Tarpley was a guest on Bonnie Faulkner’s “Guns and Bread”, a show that originates from KPFA, the Berkeley Pacifica affiliate. If you have a taste for that sort of thing, you can hear the Tarpley show here: http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/111349 Faulkner, like Tarpley, is a long-standing 911 Truther.

Can Pacifica be saved? That’s a good question.

Digital Rebellion: the Birth of the Cyber Left

Filed under: computers,Counterpunch,Internet,journalism — louisproyect @ 1:49 pm
Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion”

Can the Net Drive Social Movements?


Largely through the writings and public addresses of David Graeber, Marina Sitrin, John Holloway and others, “horizontalism” became a buzzword to describe various movements over the past fifteen years or so that were inspired by the Seattle protests and marked by direct democracy, communications through the Internet, militant tactics, and a belief that occupations of public spaces could prefigure a future, more just world. Ideologically, anarchism and autonomist Marxism loomed large—understandably so since the “verticalism” of the old Left seemed to have run its course.

As is so often the case, movements and institutions that appear to contradict each other can often be resolved on a higher level. In this instance, given the exhaustion of “horizontalist” initiatives over the past couple of years, an analysis of the contested ideological terrain is more necessary than ever. As a major contribution to the debate, I cannot recommend Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left” highly enough. If you read an excerpt from the book’s introduction on last weekend’s CounterPunch, you will understand that the book is directed to the activist left and is not the typical academic work despite the author being a member of the Rutgers University faculty and the book being published by the University of Illinois Press.

Eminently readable, Digital Rebellion is a mixture of reporting and theory all designed to move beyond the horizontal-vertical duality and achieve a synthesis that draws from the best of both worlds. While the words Syriza and Podemos cannot be found in its pages (and of course Podemos was born after the book was published), their presence looms over its pages. As political parties, they were midwifed by the occupations of the horizontalist left–so much so that at least one well-known autonomist has broken ranks and come around to seeing the benefits of wielding state power, hitherto something seen as anathema. Jerome Roos of Roar Magazine, an autonomist stronghold, gave an interview to Syriza in which he said that “Syriza’s radical internationalism is uplifting and a positive contrast to the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of the business class.” These are welcome words indeed.

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February 19, 2015

What the zombies tell us

Filed under: Film,television — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

Below you will see an excerpt from the February 8, 2015 episode of “Walking Dead” on the AMC cable channel. Titled “What Happened and What’s Going On”, it is about the latest futile attempt by the characters to find a safe haven against zombies, in this instance a middle-class gated community that was formerly the home of Noah, an African-American youth who joined the band recently.

Noah is accompanied by Tyreese, the older and powerfully built African-American who we see in the excerpt being attacked by Noah’s brother, who has been transformed into a zombie.

I want to direct your attention to the radios that are shown in Noah’s house as Tyreese lies bleeding on the floor and later on when he is being rushed away in a car driven by Rick, the band’s leader. In both instances Tyreese is hallucinating since radio and television, and all civilized life, has come to an end.

The radios play what sounds like BBC reporters commenting on Boko Haram or ISIS: “Four deadly attacks on the coastal district”. “The marauders continue their campaign of random violence”. “The country’s military forces in disarray”. And so on.

For me, the hallucinatory radio broadcasts came as an epiphany. I have made no effort to track down commentary on this episode but I interpret it as a sidelong glance at the barbaric nature of so-called Islamic radicals, even though they have very little to do with religion. More generally, the writer Scott Gimple is conveying the show’s major theme—that human beings are worse than the dreaded zombies and that civilization is entering a new Dark Age.

Over the past couple of years, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four they try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and Noah’s gated community. Their miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.

In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.

The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.

Zombie tales have only assumed social and political dimensions fairly recently. Before George Romero’s breakthrough “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, the typical zombie flick was something like Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked with a Zombie” that was set in the Caribbean and involved voodoo ceremonies that brought people back to life. Tourneur also directed “Cat People”, a film much admired by film scholars for its surrealist inflections.

Romero was not interested in making the typical voodoo film. His zombies were on the attack in rural Pennsylvania and their human prey took refuge in a farmhouse whose defense was organized by Ben, an African-American played by Duane Jones. Unlike “Walking Dead”, the zombies were routed by local law enforcement that regarded them not much more than a nuisance like bedbugs or rabid skunks, which is summed up by this priceless exchange in the denouement:

Field Reporter: Chief, if I were surrounded by eight or ten of these things, would I stand a chance with them?

Sheriff McClelland: Well, there’s no problem. If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.

Rob Kuhn’s documentary “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Netflix or Amazon, interviews George Romero and leaves no doubt about his determination to use zombies as a symbol of 1960s chaos and disintegration. In my review of the film, I noted:

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as the sheriff in “Walking Dead” but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre.

As the seventies, eighties and nineties wore on, the zombie genre took on a bleaker character. If they were a minor inconvenience in Romero’s 1968 film, by 2002 they were a powerful force that had made civilized life impossible—anticipating in their way the message of “Walking Dead”. I speak here of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”, a brilliant film that for the first time depicts human beings as much of a menace as the zombies they supposedly protect mankind from. In the thrilling conclusion to the film, a young British civilian fends off a military unit that is planning to rape his girlfriend.

Three years later George Romero made a new zombie film that is even more of a social commentary than his 1968 original. Titled “Land of the Dead”, it puts a zombie army that is advancing on a gated city that is as brutally class divided as Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai. In my review of this film that can be seen on Amazon streaming, I quoted Romero who was asked about why the film was set in a Pittsburgh of the dystopian future:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

Leaving aside the social and political implications of “Walking Dead”, I can recommend it as first-rate entertainment. Like other shows on AMC such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, the station has a way of putting together dramatic serials that are the equal or superior to anything on the premium channels such as HBO or Showtime. Frank Darabont, who was the screenwriter for a number of Stephen King adaptations, developed the show. It is not too hard to figure out that King’s darker than dark sensibility and supreme story-telling knack had a major influence on Darabont. There’s not much on Darabont in Wikipedia but this is worth citing:

Darabont was born in a refugee camp in 1959 in Montbéliard, Doubs, France. His parents fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. When he was still an infant, his family moved to the United States, settling in Chicago. When Darabont was five the family moved to Los Angeles. Darabont was inspired to pursue a career in film after seeing the George Lucas film THX 1138 in his youth. Darabont graduated from Hollywood High School in 1977 and did not attend college. His first jobs after finishing school included working as a forklift operator and as a busboy. He claims he got his writing skills from “endless hours” of writing at a desk on a typewriter in his free time.

Too bad so many screenwriters learned their craft in graduate school than in the way that Darabont did.

Finally, while on the topic of zombie movies or TV shows as entertainment, let me recommend two of my favorites: Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s “Dead Snow”, made in 2009 and the sequel “Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead”. Both films can be seen on Netflix streaming and are brilliant pulp fiction.

In the first film, a weekend skiing trip by Norwegian students turns into a desperate flight from Nazi soldiers who emerge as the walking dead from beneath the snow. It is a splatter film filled with cartoon-like effects of power tools being used as weapons, one of which is used to saw off the arm of Martin, who has been bitten and infected by a Nazi zombie. Yes, I know it sounds idiotic but it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. There are multiple beheadings but none that would give you the kind of feeling of dismay that ISIS gives. Your reaction is to laugh out loud in much the way that a safe being dropped on the coyote’s head in a roadrunner cartoon would.

In the sequel, there is even more merriment. I laughed so loud watching it that I was afraid my neighbors would complain to the doormen downstairs. Martin, who is the sole survivor of the first attack, gets the Nazi battalion commander’s arm that he has chopped off fleeing from the mountaintop reattached to his body in the hospital while he is unconscious. Meanwhile, the Nazi ends up with Martin’s arm. It all leads to inspired farce such as Martin not being able to control the reattached arm that seems to have a mind of its own. If you’ve seen Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, you’ll get the picture.

The film gets its subtitle from Martin’s raising a battalion of Red Army soldiers who have been buried in Norway since 1945, after a battle with the Nazis now on the rampage. Using the power of his reanimated right arm, he brings them back to life or more accurately allows them to walk among the living. The final scene is a truly inspired gore-fest with intestines being pulled out of the victim’s stomach like a garden hose and dozens of beheadings. If you prefer “The Imitation Game” or “Birdman”, the hell with you.


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