Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 17, 2015

The hazards of success, especially for Marxists

Filed under: celebrity — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

For Boris Kargalitsky, socialist writer and activist who founded the Popular Front for Perestroika in Moscow
Boris Yeltsin a leading member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, whose political courage has made him a leading symbol throughout the country.

The dedication found in this book:

In bourgeois society, the artist is often undermined by his or her own success. You become too big for your britches. After Woody Allen became the NY Times’s darling, they refrained from telling him that his movies were becoming crap. The same thing with Saul Bellow. After the success of “Herzog”, his editors would not dare tell him that a novel like “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” was racist tripe.

It would seem that Marxist celebrities have the same problem. Slavoj Zizek, the Elvis superstar of Marxism, writes an article for the New Statesman that is based almost exclusively on a website that has about much credibility as Infowars or Global Research. The magazine issues a retraction stating that the paragraphs drawn from the website were being deleted because they made false claims.

Tariq Ali gives a speech to an antiwar rally in London that proves England had plans to invade Syria with a “rebel army”. How does he know? Because a doddering old fool named Roland Dumas who had zero connection to the French state said so in a TV interview.

Don’t celebrities like Tariq Ali and Slavoj Zizek understand that they look like idiots when they make such outrageous claims? Don’t they care? I guess once you have reached such a hallowed status on the left, you can get away with anything—except on this blog.

Below are the concluding paragraphs of chapter two of Tariq Ali’s “Revolution from Above” that obviously reflect the dedication cited above. Trying to map the trajectory of Ali and Kagarlitsky into apologists for Putin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine respectively is much easier when you consider how they found it so easy to hoist Yeltsin on their shoulders in 1988. Perhaps if they had been more self-critical or better yet more in touch with the grass roots, Ali might have not written a book that had reached such ludicrous conclusions. The chapter ends with Ali gazing fondly on a member of Kagarlistky’s (aptly named?) Popular Front who was wearing badges of Che Guevara and “All Power to the Soviets”,  enough to close the deal for the street-fighting man.

In the year that this book came out, I was developing a different perspective on what was happening in the USSR, mostly as a result of what I was seeing in Nicaragua: a clear abandonment of the Sandinista revolution as the Kremlin pursued a new foreign policy in line with perestroika, one that saw Nicaragua as a bargaining chip. When Tecnica executive director Michael Urmann returned from a trip to the USSR to feel out the Russians over support for our initiatives in Africa, he was stunned by the response. All the economists he met with were only interested in discussing Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. Counter-revolution was in the air. In 1993, five short years after the publication of “Revolution from Above”, the call for “All Power to the Soviets” would ring hollow as Yeltsin’s tanks shelled the Russian parliament.

In 2000 Ali must have written off all that Che Guevara stuff as a youthful indiscretion since he clearly had no objection to fellow NLR editor Perry Anderson writing that “Socialism has ceased to be a widespread ideal” and that “Marxism is no longer a dominant in the culture of the Left. “ He was dismayed that the left had failed to come up with a “fluent vision of where the world is going” that could compare to the scribblings of Francis Fukuyama, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Yergin, Edward Luttwak, and Friedman (we can’t be sure whether he was tipping his hat to Thomas or Milton since the article omitted the first names.)

Fast-forward another 12 years. It is 2012 and Marxism and socialism are on the agenda again, while Fukuyama has become so repentant about his “end of history” thesis that he writes an article in FT stating that American democracy has nothing to teach China.

If the pendulum has swung away from the 2000 defeatist mood that infected the NLR, it has not swung far enough apparently for our NLR gurus to realign with the revolutionary socialism of their youth. The enthusiasm is less over the hammer-and-sickle (or whatever icon is more appropriate for the 21st century) and much more for the Cross of St. George that Russian paramilitaries and Spetznaz wear in Ukraine and Syria.

From chapter two of “Revolution from Above”:

Yuri Karyakin, a well-known Soviet writer, who together with Yegor Yakovlev and Lev Karpinsky served on the Central Committee apparatus during the Khrushchev era and was sent into exile, expressed his anger at the apparatus. He had started off by denouncing the way in which Stalinism and the Western Left had transformed the thought of Marx and Lenin into a religion. I expressed agreement, although it soon became clear that the dogmas of the Brezhnev period had made Karyakin deeply cynical about socialism. He spoke angrily about the corrupt apparatchiks, but nonetheless like many others his hopes were rekindled by Gorbachev. His judgement on the Conference was clearcut: ‘It was Yeltsin who fought Ligachev all the way. He’s totally honest and he has polarised politics. For me he’s worth more than almost all of them put together.’

The resolutions passed at the Conference represented an important advance, but unless there are some concrete results the rise in political consciousness could begin to falter. The spectre which haunts the party masses who back the reforms is of their leader as a prisoner of the apparatus. A number of people referred to this possibility, of political consciousness starting to fall back, although it is far more likely that if the obstruction continues Gorbachev will indeed either appeal over the heads of the bureaucracy and win, or lose and resign. The verdict on the Nineteenth Party conference, perhaps, could be expressed in a simple formula: one step forward, two steps sideways.

This was the view of many participants, as well as the mood of many workers listening to report-backs from the Conference. At the Slava Factory in Moscow, which has a workforce of over 12,000, the factory delegate was cheered as he reported Yeltsin’s speech. The delegate from Sverdlovsk, Volkov, had been reprimanded by the Party Secretary for his speech defending Yeltsin. When Volkov returned to Sverdlovsk he was treated as a local hero, and given a prime time half-hour slot on the local television station where he further elaborated on his speech. When he reported back to his factory he was greeted by a standing ovation. The workers were extremely angry at the action of the local party secretary who reprimanded him, and that same night dozens of them went to the offices of the Party secretary: in thick black paint on the road outside they left behind an extremely rude message. The next morning the slogan was the talk of the town. Since the workers had used a very special paint it was not possible to remove it by normal methods. At mid-day the patch of road outside the Secretary’s office was given a fresh coating of tar and re-surfaced to the great amusement of the passers by. The secretary in question was subsequently transferred to the Diplomatic Service!

The unofficial groups immediately began a signature campaign on the streets in support of Yeltsin and demanding his return to the Politburo. In Sverdlovsk, Sakhalin, Omsk, thousands of signatures were collected. In Moscow, Andrei Babushkin, a young student from Moscow University and an activist of the Popular. Front went out into the streets. He was beginning to collect hundreds of signatures when the militia arrested him. He was kept in prison for five days. When I met him at a Popular front press conference in July 1988 he was totally unrepentant. He had not been mistreated at all. The food in prison was just like that in the Young Pioneer camps and `in the prison van I talked to the militia members about Yeltsin. They saw the petition and most of them said they agreed with me. They, too, were on the side of Boris Nicolaevich.’ Babushkin and his young Komsomol friends were planning on returning to the streets again. His shirt was adorned with two badges: one was an image of Che Guevara, the other was a badge in Russian which bore the inscription: ‘ALL POWER TO THE SOVIETS!’


December 16, 2015

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, one must conclude that Russell Brand is one of Michael Moore’s biggest fans. Opening today at the IFC Center in New York, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is one of the many documentaries that have be made in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Like a British remake of Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story”, Brand is featured in just about every minute of the film calling attention to bankster criminality and the suffering of the poor, especially the council housing denizens who are to him as the people of Flint were to Moore.

Director Michael Winterbottom also made “The Shock Doctrine”, a 2009 documentary based on Naomi Klein’s book. As was the case with the Klein collaboration, Winterbottom’s goal was clearly to allow his subject to set the dramatic and political agenda. In essence, it was Brand’s movie as much as his.

For those who have been on another planet over the past five years or so, comedian Russell Brand became famous for taking on the rich and the powerful in a series of articles, interviews and Youtube videos in a style reminiscent of Jon Stewart. The emphasis was less on analysis and more on jeremiad. Since Brand can be even funnier than Stewart, the jeremiads had high entertainment value.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” covers well-trodden themes as Brand points out in the opening moments, admitting that you will not be hearing anything new about economic inequality. The difference is that this time you will be learning about how to change things.

This boils down to following the example of council housing activists who were fighting eviction orders by Westbrook Partners, an American company determined to build luxury condos. Eventually Westbrook mass action forced them to abandon their plans despite the British government’s support for its privatization agenda. Throughout the film, David Cameron is seen as the archfiend directing Britain’s implementation of Milton Friedman type economics. For Brand, the enemy is not so much capitalism as what he calls free market fundamentalism. Toward the end of the film, he acknowledges that his goals are relatively modest: making the billionaires pay their taxes, enforcing a living wage, and imposing a Tobin tax to fund new investments in housing, health and job creation. In light of the powerful economic forces driving the attack on working people, it is open to question that much can be done without a frontal attack on capitalism itself.

As a sign of his goodhearted but perhaps naïve understanding of class politics, Brand comes to New York to drop in on Mayor Bill de Blasio to get his advice on fending off Westbrook. While it was commendable that Brand was able to convince De Blasio to offer his support to those facing eviction in Britain, maybe he could have reminded the mayor that housing activists in New York have been bitterly disappointed in his affordable housing program that fails to address the seriousness of a housing crisis that makes many working people barely able to make ends meet. Jonathan Westin of the group Real Affordability for All has complained that the mayor has not made much of a commitment despite his lofty rhetoric. Maybe the fact that de Blasio’s point man on real estate matters is none other than James Patchett, a Goldman-Sachs alum, would explain this.

In one of the more amusing moments of the film, Brand rides around in a truck draped with signs calling for the arrest of top British bankers who were involved in what Woody Guthrie described as robbing with a fountain pen. As he makes the rounds of The City–the London version of Wall Street–in the truck, he uses a bullhorn to urge passers by to track down the guilty bankers and make a citizen’s arrest of just the sort of people who worked for Goldman-Sachs. Indeed, he makes a stop at Goldman offices in London to demand to speak to the head of the firm about why he is paid as much in a single year as one of his window washers would make in three hundred, a move patented by Michael Moore.The fact that Russell Brand seems innocent of Bill de Blasio’s shortcomings does not detract from the delight of this confrontation and many others in a well-constructed documentary that is best suited for people who have not read David Harvey or Doug Henwood.

While we are on the topic of austerity and bourgeois criminality, I would recommend a look at the Intercept website for a series of four videos on the election of Syriza and its failure to make any headway in the ongoing rape of a proud nation. It is a joint production of Laurie Poitras and Paul Mason and rather good as reporting. Unfortunately, as is the case with the Brand documentary, it does not penetrate beneath the surface. To this day much of the left looks at Alex Tsipras as the culprit but it is doubtful that anybody in the left faction of his party could have made much of a difference if they had been in power. With Venezuela’s new neoliberal government about to assail most of the social gains of the Chavistas, it might begin to make sense to stop looking for traitors and more at blind economic forces that keep working people in chains. Greece’s economic problems go back for decades and have much to do with its weak industrial base just as Venezuela’s woes grow out of the falling price of oil on world markets. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels always thought in terms of world revolution. Maybe it is time to return to their original vision.

Finally, I want to recommend a documentary titled “The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes & The Course Of Country Music” that also opens at the IFC Center today. I reviewed it in August 2014 and found it one of the finest documentaries about musicians I have ever seen. (https://louisproyect.org/2014/08/04/three-documentaries-of-note-4/)

December 14, 2015

Radical takes on World War Two

Filed under: Fascism,imperialism/globalization,Syria,war — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

For baby boomers the decision to join a Trotskyist group in the 1960s entailed coming to terms with WWII especially if you were a Jew. Unlike the Maoists (the CP was generally not an option in those wild times), the Trotskyists viewed the war as a continuation of the inter-imperialist disaster of 1914. As someone who became persuaded by Trotsky’s ideas, putting the war into historical context was made easier by the analysis of Ernest Mandel, a Jew and a member of the Belgian resistance during WWII so committed to class politics that he distributed anti-fascist leaflets to German troops whom he regarded as “workers in uniform”.

His 1976 essay “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two” drew distinctions between the allies versus axis conflict and those that involved struggles for self-determination or the right of the USSR to defend itself from counter-revolution by any means necessary.

Ernest Mandel and the authors represented in Donny Gluckstein’s collection Fighting on All Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War are part of a broader current that rose to prominence during the 1960s out of their “revisionist” take on the supposedly Good War. This includes Howard Zinn, whose chapter on WWII in a People’s History of the United States is titled “A People’s War?” and a number of New Leftist historians like Gabriel Kolko and Gar Alperovitz. To a large extent, Lyndon Johnson’s simultaneous embrace of New Deal domestic policies and the genocidal war in Vietnam forced leftist historians to come to terms with FDR’s historical legacy. The war that many of our fathers fought in, including my own who received a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge, had to evaluated in the light of Marx’s “ruthless criticism of the existing order_, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

Donny Gluckstein is the son of Yigael Gluckstein, better known as Tony Cliff—the founder of the British SWP. He is a lecturer at Edinbergh College and a member of the SWP. He is also the author of A People’s History of the Second World War, a book that comes highly recommended based on the evidence of the new collection. I learned about Fighting on All Fronts from Tom O’Lincoln who contributed the article “Australia: A war of racism, imperialism and resistance”. I have known O’Lincoln for nearly twenty years as a cyber-comrade and have deep respect for his scholarship. He is a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, a group that shares the SWP’s general theoretical approach but that is not part of its worldwide tendency. With Tom’s recommendation, I looked forward to reading Fighting on All Fronts since WWII “revisionism” is very close to my heart. Suffice it to say that I was not disappointed.

The book is divided into two parts: War in the West and War in the East. While every article is praiseworthy both in terms of the scholarship and the commitment to a class analysis so sorely missing nowadays, I would like to focus on one article from each part to serve as an introduction to a volume that excels from beginning to end.

Janey Stone’s “Jewish Resistance in Eastern Europe” is a stunning treatment of a topic that is of special interest to me as a Jew and a radical. Stone is a Jew whose mother lost most of her family in the Holocaust and who describes herself as an anti-Zionist. It delves into questions that go to the very heart of Jewish identity and survival. As she unravels the conflicting strands of Zionism, collaboration and working-class resistance, Stone tells a story that is simultaneously inspiring and dispiriting.

The brunt of her article is to challenge the idea that Jews went passively to their death in concentration camps, a view reinforced by both mainstream scholarship and popular culture, with “Schindler’s List” depicting Jews as lambs going to the slaughter and needing a Christian savior.

While nobody would apply the term savior to Jan Karski, a Pole and a Christian, his efforts on behalf of Jews would have made an interesting screenplay but arguably one that Hollywood would have dropped like a hot potato given its take on Roosevelt. Stone explains that after Karski prepared a report on the death camps in Eastern Europe that he discovered after penetrating the Warsaw Ghetto disguised as a Ukrainian soldier, he went to FDR to alert him to the impending human disaster. Karski was disappointed to discover that the president was more interested in the status of Polish horses than that of the nation’s Jews.

Ultimately it would be up to the Jews themselves to organize their defense with the Jewish Labor Bund providing most of the leadership. Stone describes the confrontation between Polish fascists who had been terrorizing Jewish shopkeepers and Jewish activists in 1938 that resulted in ambulances being summoned to carry off the battered thugs who had been lured into an ambush.

Stone tackles the stereotypical view of Poles as anti-Semites with copious evidence to the contrary, especially among the working class that was by and large committed to socialist politics. Furthermore, even in the peasantry, which was by no means as progressive as the workers, there was much more anti-Semitism among the wealthy farmers than those toward the bottom. When peasants organized a ten-day general strike in 1937, the Jews offered support. A Bundist youth leader reported: “During the strike you could see bearded Chassidim [religious Jews] on the picket lines along with peasants.”

Given the widespread attention to Hannah Arendt’s contention in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Judenrat (Jewish council) was complicit in the extermination of millions of Jews, Stone’s nuanced treatment of this question is essential reading. Citing Lenni Brenner, whose research into this period is essential, Stone points out that Zionists were selected by the Nazis to staff the Judenrat more than all other political groups combined. The remainder came from the traditional Jewish religious establishment.

Some Judenrat figures were barely distinguishable from the Nazis, including Mordechai Rumkowski from the Lodz Ghetto who ran it as a slave labor camp. However, in most cases the collaborationists simply failed to support the Bundist underground and opposed all forms of struggle.

Despite such treachery, struggles did break out. Bundists were on the front lines but so were Labor Zionists. The Zionist officialdom might have made common cause with the Nazis but the more radical youth groups such as Hashomer Hatzair were willing to fight. However, not every Jew was strong enough to engage in combat. For many, the determination to survive was paramount. Setting up soup kitchens or creating art to raise peoples’ spirits was their way of joining the resistance. Even humor was used as a weapon. A joke made the rounds in this bleak world: A Jewish teacher asks his pupil, “Tell me, Moshe, what would you like to be if you were Hitler’s son?” An orphan was the reply.

Although Jews were most often left to their own devices to fight against the Nazi genocide, there were allies. As stated above, the Poles often acted in solidarity despite the fact that they risked certain death if discovered. Stone singles out Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews that was founded in 1944.

Zegota’s headquarters was the home of a Polish Socialist (Eugenia Wasowska) who had worked closely with the Bund. The organisation held “office hours” twice each week at which time couriers went in and out. Despite the enormous number of people who knew its location, the headquarters were never raided by the Germans. One “branch office” was a fruit and vegetable kiosk operated by Ewa Brzuska, an old woman known to everybody as “Babcia” (Granny). Babcia hid papers and money under the sauerkraut and pickle barrels and always had sacks of potatoes ready to hide Jewish children.

The best known Zegota activist is Irene Sendler, head of the children’s division. A social worker and a socialist, she grew up with close links to the Jewish community and could speak Yiddish. Sendler had protested against anti-Semitism in the 1930s: she deliberately sat with Jews in segregated university lecture halls and nearly got expelled. Irene Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing them with false documents and sheltering them in individual and group children’s homes outside the ghetto.

Turning to William Crane’s article “Burma: Through two imperialisms to independence”, we are reminded that for many people living in the British Empire, Japan could appear as the lesser evil especially in a place like Burma where George Orwell worked as a cop. In his essay “Shooting an Elephant”, he reflected on the surly natives.

In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

As was the case with India’s Congress Party, resistance to colonialism in Burma was fairly tame with native elites seeking an end to the sort of discrimination that was revealed in Orwell’s complaints. Its vanguard was the Young Man’s Buddhist Association that was founded in 1906 by a British-educated Burmese lawyer.

Eventually the movement grew more militant even if its leadership remained in the hands of the elites who referred to themselves as Thakins, the word for masters. In a new movement that emerged in the 1930s called We Burmans Association, the Thakins drew upon working class support to extract concessions from the British. Like many colonial elites living under British rule, the Burmese nationalists were seduced to some extent by fascist ideology. If “democracy” meant living under the British boot, it was no surprise that rival imperialisms might have a certain appeal.

But another rival to British capitalist democracy had even greater appeal, namely the USSR. In 1939 the first Communist cell was created in Burma under the leadership of an Indian named Narendra Dutt. Despite being a member of this cell, a man named Aung San decided in mid-1940 that an alliance with Japanese imperialism would be more useful for the cause of Burmese independence. He worked closely with Keiji Suzuki, a colonel in the Imperial army who had come to Burma disguised as a businessman and charged with the responsibility of lining up support from nationalists like Aung San, who was the father of Burma’s new president—a reformer who has shown little interest in attacking the deep state that has been in existence for many decades.

Along with other Thakins, Aun San constituted themselves as the Thirty Comrades who became the core of Burma’s wartime armed forces. They received training by the Japanese military in occupied China and began recruiting the men who would join with the Japanese in 1942 in a general assault on British rule. If your yardstick for judging political movements is based on how they lined up in WWII, you will certainly have condemned Aung San on an a priori basis. But as Trotsky pointed out in a 1938 essay titled “Learn to Think”, there are times when workers will find it advantageous to make temporary deals with fascist imperialism rather than its democratic rivals. The only caveat, of course, is that such deals are strictly pragmatic and strictly temporary.

Unfortunately in the case of Burma, the deal was more like a double-deal when the Japanese began their occupation. Aung San and his comrades had exchanged one colonial oppressor for another.

One of the most glaring examples of Japanese disregard for Burmese rights was the construction of a “Death Railway” that became the subject of Pierre Boulle’s novel “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and the 1957 film directed by David Lean based on Boulle’s novel. You are probably aware that Alec Guinness played the British prisoner of war who in supervising the work crew made up of POW’s lost sight of its use to the Japanese war effort. He saw the bridge much more in terms of Britain’s “civilizing” role in places like India where railways and telegraphs supposedly outweighed colonial exploitation, even in the eyes of Karl Marx early in his career.

What the film leaves out was the costs of its construction on native lives. For that you need to read William Crane’s article:

The conditions for the native labourers in Burma were equivalent if not worse as they were unprotected by even the semblance of concern for the welfare of POWs. The railway upon its completion had consumed as many as 100,000 lives. But we need to draw no special conclusions about the Japanese psyche from the “Death Railway” or any of their other horrific crimes. For the Japanese were trying to catch up with the “civilised” empires of Britain and France, and in the course of this ended up competing with the death tolls they had accumulated over a much longer period of time during the few years of the war. The railway, like the Shoah in Eastern Europe, was the outcome of this process, the realisation of a dream that “projected Japanese dreams of industrial fortitude, economic robustness, and Asian domination”.

Like Donny Gluckstein’s collection, James Heartfield’s Unpatriotic History of World War Two belongs on the same bookshelf along with Zinn, Kolko and Alperovitz. Written in 2012, it is a close to a 500 page debunking of the Good War mythology that is filled with deep insights into how really bad it was. If the Gluckstein collection focuses more on the progressive movements that coincided with a savage bloodletting, Heartfield’s book concentrates much more on the latter. It would be difficult for anybody to read his book and be taken in by the Greatest Generation balderdash that continues to dominate the mainstream narratives of an inter-imperialist rivalry whose damage to humanity and nature alike remains unparalleled.

As many of you realize, I have been sharply critical of Spiked Online, a website that is the latest permutation of a one-time current on the British left known as the Revolutionary Communist Party that emerged as a split from the group that would become Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party. While I generally found the contrarianism of the RCP problematic, particularly around environmental issues, I must admit that any influence it had on James Heartfield’s willingness to spend years of research to write this book that sticks its finger in the eye of the Good War nonsense is to be commended. With so much of the left ready to see the Russian adventure in Syria as a repeat of the war of liberation led by the Red Army against Nazi barbarism, it is of considerable importance to have a book like the Unpatriotic History in our arsenal.

One of the prime dispensers of WWII patriotic gore is the website Socialist Unity that counts John Wight as one of its primary contributors. At one time I considered it a useful resource for regroupment efforts such as the one that took place when RESPECT was a major player on the British left. But when it became obvious that its more fundamental purpose was to breathe life into the Great War mythology and Labour Party reformism, I realized that one’s attitude toward Winston Churchill remained a litmus test for the left. When Socialist Unity began posting “greatest generation” type nonsense about Churchill, I tried to remind Wight et al that the famine in Bengal was really not that great. Suffice it to say that the take on the famine at Socialist Unity amounted to a kind of genocide denial.

The chief value of Heartfield’s book is its copious documentation on how people such as Roosevelt, Churchill, and even Stalin were no better than the Japanese and Germans around a number of questions, particularly their treatment of working people who were cannon fodder and virtual slaves in wartime production when the elementary right to strike was viewed as treasonous.

Chapter Six of Unpatriotic History is titled “Imperialist War” and makes for essential reading. Like every other chapter, it is filled with revealing data and quotations from the warmakers that hoists them on their own petard. Heartfield cites Leo Amery, The Secretary of State for India:

After all, smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world. It will be no consolation to suggest that Hitler should be replaced by Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek or even an American President if we cease to exercise our power and influence in the world.

While promoted as a benign free trade policy, Roosevelt’s Open Door Policy was a bid to replace Britain as the world’s number one empire as Leo Amery clearly understood. After signing the Atlantic Charter, FDR articulated the kind of paternalism usually associated with his fifth cousin Theodore:

there seems no reason why the principle of trusteeship in private affairs should not be extended to the international field. Trusteeship is based on the principle of unselfish service. For a time at least there are many minor children among the peoples of the world who need trustees in their relations with other nations and peoples.

But the grand prize for overall depravity goes to Winston Churchill based on this account that clearly would have offended his fans at Socialist Unity:

At a Cabinet meeting on 10 November 1943, Prime Minister Churchill said Indians had brought famine on themselves because they were ‘breeding like rabbits’ and so would have to pay the price of their own improvidence. Churchill’s prejudices were backed up by his chief scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, in a letter the following day: ‘This shortage of food is likely to be endemic in a country where the population is always increased until only bare subsistence is possible.’ Cherwell carried on to turn the truth on its head, moaning as if it was Britain that was subsidising India, not the other way around:

After the war India can spend her huge hoards of sterling on buying food and thus increase the population still more, but so long as the war lasts her high birth rate may impose a heavy strain on this country [i.e. Britain] which does not view with Asiatic detachment the pressure of a growing population on limited supplies of food.

Let me conclude with some parting thoughts on the spate of World War Two nostalgia that has followed in the wake of Russian entry into the war on the Syrian people. On September 28th, Vladimir Putin made a speech at the UN proposing a coalition against ISIS similar to the one that united the USA, Britain and the USSR in World War Two.

What we actually propose is to be guided by common values and common interests rather than by ambitions. Relying on international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.

John Wight was obviously one person carried away by this rhetoric to the point of swooning. Showing that he would not be taken in by any weak-kneed aversion to the necessary tasks of a war on fascism, he informed his readers at Huffington Post and CounterPunch that firebombing Dresden and barrel-bombing open-air markets in Syria were not game-changers:

Barrel bombs are an atrociously indiscriminate weapon, for sure, and their use rightly comes under the category of war crime. However just as the war crime of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today. When the survival of a country and its culture and history is at stake, war can never be anything else but ugly, which is why the sooner it is brought to a conclusion in Syria the better.

This specious blast of hot air is so filled with bad faith and faulty logic that it would take a year to elaborate on all of its sinister implications. So let me take a minute to nail them down.

To begin with, the war between Germany and the USA was a war between empires. As Leo Amery stated above, “smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world.” The democracy enjoyed by Britain was made possible only by its super-exploitation of India, Kenya, Burmese, Egypt, China, et al. This was obvious to anyone who has read Lenin even if it was lost on an aspiring Colonel Blimp like John Wight.

But the most important insight that can be gleaned by Wight’s invocation of the Good War is its affinity with a figure whose ghost walks across the parapet of the Assadist left, namely Christopher Hitchens. His footprints can be seen in all of the Islamophobic articles that appear on a daily basis from people like Wight, Mike Whitney and Pepe Escobar who recently referred to the anti-Assad fighters as “mongrels”, the kind of epithet that usually rolls off the tongues of Israeli politicians.

In 2008 Hitchens wrote an article titled “WW2, a War Worth Fighting” that essentially sums up the outlook of laptop bombardiers like John Wight and everybody else extolling the air war on Syrian rebels from the safety of their offices in the USA or Great Britain–especially the last sentence that jibes with Wight’s ghoulish musings on Dresden.

Is there any one shared principle or assumption on which our political consensus rests, any value judgment on which we are all essentially agreed? Apart from abstractions such as a general belief in democracy, one would probably get the widest measure of agreement for the proposition that the second world war was a “good war” and one well worth fighting. And if we possess one indelible image of political immorality and cowardice, it is surely the dismal tap-tap-tap of Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella as he turned from signing the Czechs away to Adolf Hitler at Munich. He hoped by this humiliation to avert war, but he was fated to bring his countrymen war on top of humiliation. To the conventional wisdom add the titanic figure of Winston Churchill as the emblem of oratorical defiance and the Horatius who, until American power could be mobilized and deployed, alone barred the bridge to the forces of unalloyed evil. When those forces lay finally defeated, their ghastly handiwork was uncovered to a world that mistakenly thought it had already “supped full of horrors.” The stark evidence of the Final Solution has ever since been enough to dispel most doubts about, say, the wisdom or morality of carpet-bombing German cities.

December 13, 2015

A uninvited Syrian speaks out at a Stop the War Coalition rally

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:05 pm

December 11, 2015

Alex Anievas: ‘Rethinking the Origins of Capitalism: Beyond the Eurocentric Cage’

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

The Girl King; Aferim

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

“The Girl King” is now the third film I have seen this year dealing with transgender issues (the others were Tangerine and The Danish Girl) and by far the most interesting even though it is by no means perfect. Available now on Vimeo for a modest fee, it tells the story of Queen Christina of Sweden who ruled from 1632 until 1654.

Christina, played by Malin Buska, is the daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus who was allied with other Protestant monarchs in a thirty-year war against the Catholics that like Syria today was a combination of geopolitics and class struggle. The Protestants tended to reflect the class aspirations of an emerging bourgeoisie while the Catholics stood for feudalism. Neil Faulkner, the author of “A Marxist History of the World” and a member of John Rees’s CounterFire tendency, describes it:

A religious war therefore turned into a geopolitical conflict. The transformative potential of the Reformation was deflected by princely leadership and dissolved into a conventional military struggle between rival states.

Without a son, King Gustavus decided that Christina would be entitled to all the rights and privileges of a man and even stipulated that she would be called the King after assuming the throne. Whether this explains her sexual orientation is an open question.

As is the case today, it would be a mistake to see the principals in this struggle in a simplistic manner. If Sweden was a state committed to Lutheran values, Queen Christina seemed like the last person on earth willing to carry them out. She was not only willing to defy sexual norms; she was also seduced by the writings of Rene Descartes whose radical subjectivism represented a threat to the established order. Ironically, it was the Catholic powers that tolerated his philosophy much more than the Protestants who ostensibly represented the challenge to feudal orthodoxy—particularly the dominance of religion over science.

After encountering his writings, Queen Christina began corresponding with the French philosopher as a fan, much like a grad student writing to Zizek. Of course, given her sexual orientation, it is obvious that it was his brains rather than his private parts that interested her.

Played by Patrick Bauchau, a veteran Belgian actor and the son of philosopher Henry Bauchau who fought in the French Resistance, Rene Descartes moves to Sweden to become Christina’s tutor. Arguably, it is the most important partnership between a monarch and a philosopher since Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great.

In one of the most riveting scenes in the film, Christina invites the newly arrived philosopher to demonstrate to her retinue his most important discovery—the site of emotions in the human anatomy. Descartes then removes a sheet from a corpse that is displayed before them, takes a scalpel and saw to remove the top of the skull, and reveals the secret source of emotions: the pineal gland. One of the dour Lutherans in attendance can take no more and storms out yelling “sacrilege”.

This offense could not compare to what would soon follow. Christina has invited her lady-in-waiting and bedmate, the Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), into the library she has assembled from the greatest books of Europe. She is proudest of an immense manuscript of black magic written by a monk who supposedly wrote it in one evening under Satan’s direction. Christina opens the book, strips to her waist, presses Erika’s back against the book’s open pages and begins to kiss her. When the doors swing open and a member of the court spots the two women in flagrante delicto, Christina makes no effort to explain what is going on. She is the King after all—or Queen?

The film shows Descartes being poisoned by a Lutheran priest but there is no proof that this happened. Some historians believe that the real cause was living in a cold climate and contracting pneumonia. There is no doubt, however, about the hostility that Christina’s court felt toward him.

Eventually they decided that she had to go as well. Pressures mounted to the point when abdication was the best move for her. She converted to Catholicism and relocated to Rome where she continued as a patron of the arts, the sciences and Enlightenment values. Her contribution to Catholic institutions was considered so important that she is one of only three women buried in the Vatican.

My recommendation is to have a bit of patience with “The Girl King” since there are some artistic choices made by Mika Kaurismaki, the brother of the far better known Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, that are somewhat off-putting. The film is in English and the actors are directed to appear like our contemporaries rather than as archaic players in a costume drama. That might make sense but more questionable was screenwriter Michel Bouchard’s decision to use outright anachronisms in the dialog. For example, characters say things like “you must be kidding”. It takes a while to get used to that style.

Despite the pleasure I got from Kaurismaki’s film and the incentive it gives me to follow up on a research project about Queen Christina and 17th century history, I could not help but wonder what Sally Potter would have done with this material. If you’ve seen her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”, a novel about an androgynous member of Queen Elizabeth’s court, you’ll know that it was made to order for director Sally Potter. Even if Kaurismaki was much too literal in his handling of the story, you will appreciate his effort. Given the fear and hatred that so many powerful men today have today about sexual identity, it is salutary to see how the right of a woman to act like a man was uncontested in Lutheran-dominated Sweden. Of course, it helps to be the most powerful person in that society. It might also help if class rule was a thing of the past, so that everybody can enjoy what Huey Long once said:

Every man a king, so there would be no such thing as a man or woman who did not have the necessities of life, who would not be dependent upon the whims and caprices and ipsi dixit of the financial martyrs for a living.

Opening at Lincoln Plaza in NY and the Laemmle in Los Angeles on January 22nd, “Aferim!” is Romania’s official entry for the 2016 Academy Awards. Directed by Radu Jude, it is a commentary on contemporary Romania even though it is set in 1835 Wallachia, a state that would eventually be part of the modern state that is still going through post-Soviet agonies. Indeed, just about all of Romania’s very talented filmmakers are consumed with the question of how they lived under Ceausescu and how his overthrow has failed to bring them the economic well-being and freedom they had hoped for. As director Radu Jude put it in an interview with CineEurope: “I truly believe what Johan Huizinga said: ‘We analyse every age for the sake of the promises it contains for the next age.’”

“Aferim” is a vernacular term meaning something like “Bravo” that is heard from its characters throughout the film. It is obviously related to the Turkish word “aferin” that is part of the term “aferin sana” that means “good for you” and that my wife often says to me after I tell her I have been published in some high-toned journal.

It is used with irony in Jude’s film since everything is marked by degradation of the most appalling nature. It is the story of a father and son who are seen riding across a desolate plain on horseback in their search for a runaway slave. The father, named Constandin (Teodor Corban), is a constable and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) an unpaid assistant. The story evokes a John Ford western except in this instance the posse is wicked and the runaway slave, a Roma named Carfin Pandolean (Toma Cuzin), is their better. In fact, the higher up you are on the social ladder in feudal Wallachia, the closer you are to savagery.

As Constandin and Ionita wend their way through one Roma village after another, they make sure to bully and threaten those they regard as less than human. They always refer to the Roma as “crows” and make sure to call the boyar—a feudal landowner—as “bright master”. In case Ionita slips up on the hierarchy, his father is sure to remind him that this is the way things are in their world and not likely to change.

The film has a grim sense of humor as Constandin hurls colorful invective at everyone who gets in his way, either beneath him socially or on his own level. In a memorable scene, father and son run into a carriage driven by a Turk somewhat higher up than them on the totem pole. When Constandin sees him coming, he says under his breath “Curse them Turks”. When the Turk asks him for directions to a Wallachian town, Constandin sends him off in the opposite direction. But before the Turk leaves, he gives the men a gift in gratitude for the wrong directions, some halvah. After the carriage departs, Constandin confides to his son: “I sent the fool the other way”. Ionita’s response: “Aferim, father!” Constandin’s final words as the carriage heads off:

I hate the Ottomans. The filthiest nation on earth. And he talked to me like I was shit. Said he was afraid of our haiduks [brigands who operated in Ottoman controlled territories in Eastern Europe]. I hope our Romanian boys catch him and tan his skin. You can tell from their talk that they’s nothin’ but beasts. We work like morons for them and the boyars.

That little speech does more to explain feudal Romania than any ten scholarly articles.

The stunning conclusion of this powerful film is set in the manor of boyar Iordache Cîndescu (Alexandru Dabija) who is intent on punishing the runaway slave for having cuckolded him. Suffice it to say that the punishment is gruesome and only made possible in the same way that it was in the Deep South in the pre-Civil War era. And in the same way that modern-day racism and capitalist dysfunctionality are related to life in that period, it would be fair to conclude that director Radu Jude sees Romania today in the same terms.

I urge you to see this very important film and to at least consult the press notes whether or not you are not in NY or LA to see it as it contains such interesting insights. Historian Constanta Vintila-Ghitulescu states:

The Romanian society is so concerned with women’s honor and reputation, that it allows husbands who are cheated on to punish the poor lover caught in the act with their wife. Revenge included tarring and feathering, exposing the naked man in public places, whipping or even castration, especially when the lover belonged to an inferior social category. And gypsies belonged in the lowest social class. Attached to their masters by slavery, gypsies seem no different from the animals on the noblemen’s or church domain. At the time, “gypsy” is synonymous with “slavery,” and the word “roma” does not even exist yet, it will only be introduced in the 20th century.

Abolishing slavery is a very new idea and only timidly advocated for, because slave owners have important functions in the political life. Preaching freedom for these poor beings, in the name of humanity, starts from the Church, through the voice of a few enlightened ecclesiastics at the beginning of the 19th century, but the time for freedom has not come yet. It is only with the active implication of young intellectuals around the 1848 movement that the public opinion will be shaped in favor of freeing the gypsy slaves. It took more than a decade to translate this process into legal form: in 1856, “The Law for the Emancipation of All Gypsies in Wallachia” is passed.

US versus Russia versus “anti-imperialists”: Who is best advocate of killing Syrian truck drivers?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

(This was posted to the Marxism list this morning by Michael Karadjis)

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 10.22.33 AM

In recent weeks, US and Russian warplanes bombing Syria have been targeting trucks allegedly transporting “ISIS oil.” Indeed, Russian leaders have accused Turkey of being a major market for this “ISIS oil”, a claim that indicates spectacular hypocrisy given the very well-known, long-term oil trade between ISIS and Russia’s ally, the Syrian genocide regime.

Of course, as is well known, ISIS sells oil to hundreds of small private traders who then transport it to whoever wants to buy it, which can include Kurdish authorities, Syrian rebels, Turkey or the Assad regime.

While Russia has focused almost entirely on bombing the Free Syrian Army (FSA), indeed in provinces and regions with zero ISIS presence, even to the point of directly facilitating ISIS advances against the rebels (as in northern Aleppo over the last fortnight), it has also taken some potshots against ISIS, above all slaughtering civilians in Raqqa and destroying civilian infrastructure.

One form of “fighting ISIS” has been bombing these impoverished drivers who make their living by transporting oil or other goods from whoever wants to sell them to whoever wants to buy them.

Soon after Russia invaded Syria, the US also began bombing these civilian trucks and killing their drivers. The US had already been bombing civilian oil infrastructure under ISIS control for a year or so.

One of the talking points of the pro-Russian imperialist “anti-imperialists” then became that “the US only began bombing the oil trucks after Our Mother Russia first bombed them goddamned terrorists.”

For some it seems, “anti-imperialism” today, oddly, means supporting whichever superpower can better slaughter civilian truck-drivers doing their job in a poor country far from home. That is quite a sensational development.

An article which, quite correctly and uncontroversially, points out that Assad buys more “ISIS oil” than anyone else, also gives a good description of how small-scale, insecure and desperate these middle people are:

“The trucks don’t have to go far to sell ISIS oil. In fact, it’s cheaper and easier for them to sell oil to locals who run basic refineries in the countryside, not far from the main oil fields in eastern Syria … With few exceptions, these backyard refineries are just stills in which small batches of oil are heated and the resulting vapor is condensed into low-grade fuel. The owners, usually desperate Arab families who don’t belong to ISIS, run several at a time. The work is dirty and dangerous; the scene is apocalyptic. Toxic plumes of black smoke, scorched earth, soot, and explosions make Mad Max look tame. Hundreds if not thousands of these stills are now active across Syria. Combined, they provide tens of thousands of barrels in daily refining capacity. Fuel from these refineries is sold at roadside pumping stations or in bulk to middlemen who deliver it to population centers where demand is greater”.

These are the people that some “anti-imperialists” think are criminals who the superpowers should blow to bits from the sky if they are serious about “fighting ISIS.”

Moreover, just because Russian media showed pictures of trucks allegedly crossing the Turkish border, hardly proves they are all necessarily transporting oil. According to the truck drivers in this video, many of them are transporting food or other goods to supply some of the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and they constantly get bombed by the Russian air force.

While it may be difficult to vouch for the validity of what these truck-drivers are saying, that is hardly different from a great deal of “information” floating around the region, above all from the Russian and Iranian versions of Fox News which are mere propaganda organs for the Assad regime.

Between a belligerent invading state’s media showing pictures of trucks and calling them “ISIS,” and bombing and killing working people trying desperately to make a living, and truck drivers in a video claiming to be delivering food, I’ll take my bets on the latter.

Assadism without Assad

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

December 9, 2015

Zizek, Turkey and ISIS

Filed under: journalism,Syria,Zizek — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 3.37.32 PM


Editor’s note, 9 December: This article originally included a statement that was falsely attributed to the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. This has now been removed.

As someone who has been monitoring the leftist support for Bashar al-Assad for the past four years, I continue to be mystified by the willingness of so many otherwise sensible people to write a bunch of bullshit without the slightest self-awareness—the latest case being Slavoj Žižek in the New Statesman. The Elvis Superstar of Marxism, Lacanian film interpreter and scourge of immigrants trying to flee warfare and economic disaster has joined the growing chorus of radicals arguing that the AKP in Turkey and ISIS are in cahoots.

Like the shoddy list of allegations put together by Columbia University professor and flimflam artist David L. Phillips that John Wight and Rick Sterling represented as a smoking gun proving that the AKP and ISIS were co-conspirators, Žižek scrapes the bottom of the barrel:

In October 2015, Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation and the Turkish President’s staunchest ally, condemned Russian military intervention in Syria, accusing Moscow of trying to “smother” Syria’s Islamist revolution. “Isis is a reality and we have to accept that we cannot eradicate a well-organised and popular establishment such as the Islamic State; therefore I urge my western colleagues to revise their mindset about Islamic political currents, put aside their cynical mentalité and thwart Vladimir Putin’s plans to crush Syrian Islamist revolutionaries,” Anadolu News Agency quoted Fidan as saying on Sunday.

Actually when you click the link to Anadolu News Agency, you end up on another news website that provides no link to the reputable Turkish publisher. That website is AWDNews.com, with the “AWD” being the acronym of “Another Western Dawn”. You might wonder why Žižek would be trawling this website but then again his publisher at Verso—the redoubtable Tariq Ali—seems to have his nose buried in RT.com most of the time nowadays. I guess it is contagious.

I invite people who prefer thinking for themselves to being spoon-fed by the Baathist amen corner to visit the Anodolu website either in English (http://aa.com.tr/en) or Turkish (http://aa.com.tr/) and find such an article using the search terms “Fidan” and “ISIS”. As the Turks say, “yok”–there is none. I was not able to find anything in Nexis as well.

More importantly, it is always a good idea to check the provenance of a website before passing on its articles as the gospel. If you do a “Whois” on http://www.awdnews.com, you will discover that the administrator is one Kelvin Middelkoop who is based in Berlin. Middelkoop also administers a website called Muslim Press (http://www.muslimpress.com/) that is as anxious as AWD to make connections between the AKP and ISIS. It lines up with Phil Greaves’s Shi’ite “axis of resistance” just like Wight and Sterling do. For example, you can find an article there titled “Recent letter shows Ayatollah Khamenei’s insight into world developments”, just the sort of thing you’d expect from these quarters.

But it is AWD that really lets out the stops. In addition to the dodgy article on Turkey and ISIS, you can find one titled “North Korea Threatens Turkey With Nuclear Missile Strike” (http://www.awdnews.com/top-news/north-korea-threatens-turkey-with-nuclear-missile-strike). It states that “Mizan News agency reports that the North Korean leader has promised to ‘wipe Turkey off the map’ if Ankara takes part in the Syrian war, cooperates with the US and helps ISIS any further.” Mizan News, as it turns out, is based in Iran. Gee whiz, I never would have guessed.

Besides his reliance on such questionable sources, Žižek offers up other steaming piles of dung such as “Turkey even shot down a Russian fighter attacking Isis positions in Syria”. Who knows where he came up with this? One imagines that he has bought into the formula that Russia only bombs ISIS even though reputable sources identify the Turkmen victims of Russian bombing as FSA affiliates.

I must point out one other thing. Žižek ‘s article has a paragraph that starts off:

Fidan further added that in order to deal with the vast number of foreign jihadists craving to travel to Syria, it is imperative that Isis set up a consulate or at least a political office in Istanbul.

okThat does not exactly sound like Žižek, right? No, it doesn’t. In fact the entire paragraph is lifted from the AWD article that his stupid piece relied on. Didn’t the New Statesman editors catch this? Did Žižek send them an article that failed to blockquote the AWD horseshit? Who knows? The only thing you can conclude, as I stated above, is that it is contagious. When you associate yourself in any way with the Baathist amen corner, you will end up looking like a fool.

December 8, 2015

Is Donald Trump a fascist?

Filed under: Fascism — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

Nearly 20 years ago the Marxism list was discussing the candidacy of Pat Buchanan, who was viewed with the same kind of alarm that greets Donald Trump today and greeted George Wallace in 1968. As someone trained in the Trotskyist movement and who learned to be skeptical of leftist claims that these men or even someone as centrist as Richard Nixon could be a “fascist”, I tend to agree with fellow ex-SWP member Charles Post, who while being quite wet on the Brenner thesis, wrote with some clarity for Jacobin on this matter:

This radicalization of the middle classes — what Trotsky once referred to as “human dust” — bears some resemblance to the classic fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Genuine fascist elements (white supremacist groups with organized street fighting groups) have been attracted to the Tea Party and Trump.

However, neither the Tea Party nor Trump can be described as fascists. Both seek to win power through electoral politics, not abolish elections and representative government. Nor will capitalists in the US, in the foreseeable future, opt for such a far-right option. If the Republican establishment can’t stop Trump, they’ll likely cross partisan lines and support a neoliberal politician like Hillary Clinton.

The specter of Trump not only frightens the Republican establishment, but most of the US left. As it has time and time again since the 1930s, the threat of the far right will serve as an excuse for union officialdom and the liberal civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQ establishment to mobilize for Democrats.

But this solution to the rise of Trump and the far right is no solution at all: embracing “lesser evilism” in 2016 would mean yet again forgoing the work of rebuilding the labor and social movements and instead subordinating our radical politics to the Democratic Party. The disastrous result would be that the only visible opposition to the capitalist class would come not from the Left, but from a billionaire businessman.

After the discussion on Buchanan erupted on the Marxism list, I began writing a series of posts trying to analyze fascism historically in order to come to terms with his candidacy. My take was very close to Post’s and not surprisingly the analysis below that is extracted from my articles can apply equally to Trump. Just substitute “Donald Trump” for “Pat Buchanan” in the excerpt below and the analysis will ring true.


Bonapartism, populism and fascism overlap to a striking degree. We see elements of fascism, populism and Bonapartism in the politics of Pat Buchanan. Buchanan rails against African-Americans and immigrants, both documented and undocumented. He also rails against Wall St. which is “selling out” the working man. Is he a fascist, however? Ross Perot employs a number of the same themes. Is he?

The problem in trying to answer these questions solely on the basis of someone’s speeches or writings is that it ignores historical and class dynamics. Bonaparte and Hitler emerged as a response to powerful proletrian revolutionary attacks on capital. What are the objective conditions in American society today? Hitler based their power on large-scale social movements that could put tens of thousands of people into the streets at a moment’s notice. These movements were not creatures of capitalist cabals. They had their own logic and their own warped integrity. Many were drawn to Hitler in the deluded hope that he would bring some kind of “all-German” socialism into existence. These followers were not Marxists, but they certainly hated the capitalist class. Are the people who attend Buchanan, Perot and Farrakhan rallies also in such a frenzied, revolutionary state of mind?

At what point are we in American society today?

I would argue that rather than being in a prerevolutionary situation, that rather we are in a period which has typified capitalism for the better part of a hundred and fifty years.We are in a period of capitalist “normalcy”. Capitalism is a system which is prone to economic crisis and war. The unemployment and “downsizing” going on today are typical of capitalism in its normal functioning. We have to stop thinking as if the period of prosperity following WWII as normal. It is not. It is an anomaly in the history of capitalism. When industrial workers found themselves in a position to buy houses, send children through college, etc., this was only because of a number of exceptional circumstances which will almost certainly never arise again.

We are in a period more like the late 1800’s or the early 1900’s. It is a period of both expansion and retrenchment. It is a period of terrible reaction which can give birth to the Ku Klux Klan and the skinheads and other neo-Nazis. It is also a period which can give birth to something like Eugene V. Debs socialist party.

The United States in the 1930s became a battleground between industrial workers and the capitalist class over whether workers would be able to form industrial unions. There had been craft unions for decades, but only industrial unions could fight for all of the workers in a given plant or industry. This fight had powerful revolutionary implications since the captains of heavy industry required a poorly paid, docile work-force in order to maximize profits in the shattered capitalist economy. There were demonstrations, sit-down strikes and even gun-fights led by the Communist Party and other left groups to establish this basic democratic right.

Within this political context, fascist groups began to emerge. They drew their inspiration from Mussolini’s fascists or Hitler’s brown- shirts. In a time of severe social crisis, groups of petty-bourgeois and lumpen elements begin to coalesce around demagogic leaders. They employ “radical” sounding rhetoric but in practice seek out working- class organizations to intimidate and destroy. One such fascist group was the Silver Shirts of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In chapter eleven of “Teamster Politics”, SWP leader Farrell Dobbs recounts “How the Silver Shirts Lost Their Shrine in Minneapolis”. It is the story of how Local 544 of the Teamsters union, led by Trotskyists, defended itself successfully from a fascist expedition into the city. Elements of the Twin Cities ruling-class, alarmed over the growth of industrial unionism in the city, called in Silver Shirt organizer Roy Zachary. Zachary hosted two closed door meetings on July 29 and August 2 of 1938. Teamster “moles” discovered that Zachary intended to launch a vigilante attack against Local 544 headquarters. They also discovered that Zachary planned to work with one F.L. Taylor to set up an “Associated Council of Independent Unions”, a union-busting operation. Taylor had ties to a vigilante outfit called the “Minnesota Minute Men”.

Local 544 took serious measures to defend itself. It formed a union defense guard in August 1938 open to any active union member. Many of the people who joined had military experience, including Ray Rainbolt the elected commander of the guard. Rank-and-filers were former sharpshooters, machine gunners and tank operators in the US Army. The guard also included one former German officer with WWI experience. While the guard itself did not purchase arms except for target practice, nearly every member had hunting rifles at home that they could use in the circumstance of a Silver Shirt attack.

Events reached a climax when Pelley came to speak at a rally in the wealthy section of Minneapolis.

Ray Rainbolt organized a large contingent of defense guard members to pay a visit to Calhoun Hall where Pelley was to make his appearance. The powerful sight of disciplined but determined unionists persuaded the audience to go home and Pelley to cancel his speech.

This was the type of conflict taking place in 1938. A capitalist class bent on taming workers; fascist groups with a documented violent, anti-labor record; industrial workers in motion: these were the primary actors in that period. It was characteristic of the type of class conflict that characterized the entire 1930s. It is useful to keep this in mind when we speak about McCarthyism.

WWII abolished a number of major contradictions in global capital while introducing others. The United States emerged as the world’s leading capitalist power and took control economically and politically of many of the former colonies of the exhausted European powers. Inter-imperialist rivalries and contradictions seemed to be a thing of the past. England was the U.S.’s junior partner. The defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, were under Washington’s thumb. France retained some independence. (To this day France continues to act as if it were an equal partner of the US, detonating nuclear weapons in the Pacific or talking back to NATO over policies in Bosnia.)

Meanwhile the USSR survived the war bloodied but unbowed. In a series of negotiations with the US and its allies, Stalin won the right to create “buffer” states to his West. A whole number of socialist countries then came into being. China and Yugoslavia had deep-going proletarian revolutions that, joined with the buffer states, would soon account for more than 1/4 of the world’s population.

World imperialism took an aggressive stance toward the socialist bloc before the smoke had cleared from the WWII battlegrounds. Churchill made his “cold war” speech and contradictions between the socialist states and world capitalism grew very sharp. Imperialism began using the same type of rhetoric and propaganda against the USSR that it had used against the Nazis. Newreels of the early fifties would depict a spreading red blot across the European continent. This time the symbol superimposed on the blot was a hammer-and-sickle instead of a swastika. The idea was the same: to line up the American people against the enemy overseas that was trying to gobble up the “free world”.

A witch-hunt in the United States, sometimes called McCarthyism, emerged in the United States from nearly the very moment the cold war started. The witch-hunt would serve to eradicate domestic opposition to the anti-Communist crusade overseas. The witch-hunters wanted to root up and eradicate all sympathy to the USSR. President Harry Truman, a Democrat and New Dealer, started the anticommunist crusade. He introduced the first witch-hunt legislation, a bill that prevented federal employees from belonging to “subversive” organizations. When Republican Dwight Eisenhower took office, he simply kept the witch-hunt going. The McCarthy movement per se emerges out of a reactionary climate created by successive White House administrations, Democrat and Republican alike.

I will argue that a similar dynamic has existed in US politics over the past twenty years. Instead of having a “cold war” against the socialist countries, we have had a “cold war” on the working-class and its allies. James Carter, a Democrat, set into motion the attack on working people and minorities, while successive Republican and Democratic administrations have continued to stoke the fire. Reaganism is Carterism raised to a higher level. All Buchanan represents is the emergence of a particularly reactionary tendency within this overall tendency toward the right.

Attacks on the working-class and minorities have nothing to do with “bad faith” on the part of people like William Clinton. We are dealing with a global restructuring of capital that will be as deep-going in its impact on class relations internationally as the cold war was in its time. The cold war facilitated the removal of the Soviet Union as a rival. Analogously, the class war on working people in the advanced capitalist countries that began in the Carter years facilitates capital’s next new expansion. Capitalism is a dynamic system. This dynamism includes not only war and “downsizing”, it also includes fabulous growth in places like the East Coast of China. To not see this is to not understand capitalism.

“The United States, the most powerful capitalist country in history, is a component part of the world capitalist system and is subject to the same general laws. It suffers from the same incurable diseases and is destined to share the same fate. The overwhelming preponderance of American imperialism does not exempt it from the decay of world capitalism, but, on the contrary, acts to involve it even more deeply, inextricably and hopelessly. US capitalism can no more escape from the revolutionary consequences of world capitalist decay than the older European capitalist powers. The blind alley in which world capitalism has arrived, and the US with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilization. The dominant world position of American imperialism now accentuates and aggravates the death agony of capitalism as a whole.”

This appears in an article in the April 5, 1954 Militant titled “First Principles in the Struggle Against Fascism”. It is of course based on a totally inaccurate misunderstanding of the state of global capital. Capitalism was not in a “blind alley” in 1954. The truth is that from approximately 1946 on capitalism went through the most sustained expansion in its entire history. To have spoken about the “death agony” of capitalism in 1954 was utter nonsense. This “catastrophism” could only serve to misorient the left since it did not put McCarthyism in proper context.

One of the great contributions made by Nicos Poulantzas in his “Fascism and the Third International” was his diagnosis of the problem of “catastrophism”. According to Poulantzas, the belief that capitalism has reached a “blind alley” first appeared in the Comintern of the early 1920’s. He blames this on a dogmatic approach to Lenin’s “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism” that existed in a communist movement that was all too eager to deify the dead revolutionist.

Lenin’s theory of imperialism owed much to Hilferding and Bukharin who believed that capitalism was moribund and incapable of generating new technical and industrial growth. Moreover, this capitalist system was in a perpetual crisis and wars were inevitable. The Comintern latched onto this interpretation and adapted it to the phenomenon of fascism. Fascism, in addition to war, was also a permanent feature of the decaying capitalist system. A system that had reached such an impasse was a system that was in a permanent catastrophic mode. The Comintern said that it was five minutes to midnight.

The SWP’s version of catastrophism did not allow it to see McCarthy’s true mission. This mission was not to destroy the unions and turn the United States into a totalitarian state. It was rather a mission to eliminate radical dissent against the stepped-up attack on the USSR, its allies and revolutionary movements in the third world. The witch- hunt targeted radicals in the unions, the schools, the State Department, the media and elsewhere. After the witch-hunt had eradicated all traces of radical opinion, the US military could fight its imperialist wars without interference from the left. This is exactly what took place during the Korean War. There were no visible signs of dissent except in the socialist press and in some liberal publications like I.F. Stone’s Newsletter. This clamp-down on dissent lasted until the Vietnam war when a newly developing radicalization turned the witch-hunt back for good.

In the view of the SWP, nothing basically had changed since the 1930’s. The target of McCarthyite “fascism” was the working-class and its unions. The Militant stated on January 18, 1954:

“If the workers’ organizations don’t have the answer, the fascists will utilize the rising discontent of the middle class, its disgust with the blundering labor leadership, and its frenzy at being ruined economically, to build a mass fascist movement with armed detachments and hurl them at the unions. While spouting a lot of radical-sounding demagogy they will deflect the anti-capitalist wrath of the middle class and deploy it against labor, and establish the iron- heel dictatorship of Big Capital on the smoking ruins of union halls.”

One wonders if the party leadership in 1954 actually knew any middle- class people, since party life consisted of a “faux proletarian” subculture with tenuous ties to American society. Certainly they could have found out about the middle-class on the newly emerging TV situation comedies like “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver”. Rather than expressing “rising discontent” or “frenzy”, the middle- class was taking advantage of dramatic increases in personal wealth. Rather than plotting attacks on union halls like the Silver Shirts did in 1938, they were moving to suburbia, buying televisions and station wagons, and taking vacations in Miami Beach or Europe. This was not only objectively possible for the average middle-class family, it was also becoming possible for the worker in basic industry. For the very same reason the working-class was not gravitating toward socialism, the middle-class was not gravitating toward fascism. This reason, of course, is that prosperity had become general.

The other day Ryan Daum posted news of the death of Pablo, a leader of the Trotskyist movement in the 1950s. European Trotskyism is generally much less dogmatic than its American and English cousins. While the party leadership in the United States hated Pablo with a passion, rank and filers often found themselves being persuaded by some ideas put forward by the Europeans.

One of these differences revolved around how to assess McCarthy. The party leadership viewed McCarthy as a fascist while a minority grouping led by Dennis Vern and Samuel Ryan based in Los Angeles challenged this view. Unfortunately I was not able to locate articles in which the minority defends its view. What I will try to do is reconstruct this view through remarks directed against them by Joseph Hansen, a party leader. This is a risky method, but the only one available to me.

Vern and Ryan criticize the Militant’s narrow focus on the McCarthyite threat. They say, “The net effect of this campaign is not to hurt McCarthy, or the bourgeois state, but to excuse the bourgeois state for the indisputable evidences of its bourgeois character, and thus hinder the proletariat in its understanding that the bourgeois- democratic state is an ‘executive committee’ of the capitalist class, and that only a workers state can offer an appropriate objective for the class struggle.”

I tend to discount statements like “only a workers state” since they function more as a mantra than anything else (“only socialism can end racism”; “only socialism can end sexism”– you get the picture.) However, there is something interesting being said here. By singling out McCarthy, didn’t the SWP “personalize” the problems the left was facing? A Democratic president initiated the witch-hunt, not a fascist minded politician. Both capitalist parties created the reactionary movement out of which McCarthy emerges. By the same token, doesn’t the narrow focus on Buchanan today tend to lift some of the pressure on William Clinton. After all, if our problem is Buchanan, then perhaps it makes sense to throw all of our weight behind Clinton.

Vern and Ryan also offer the interesting observation that McCarthy has been less anti-union than many bourgeois politicians to his left. The liberal politicians railed against McCarthy’s assault on civil liberties, but meanwhile endorsed all sorts of measures that would have weakened the power of the American trade union movement.

This was an interesting perception that has some implications I will attempt to elucidate. McCarthy did not target the labor movement as such because the post WWII social contract between labor and big business was essentially class-collaborationist. The union movement would keep its mouth shut about foreign interventions in exchange for higher wages, job security, etc. Social peace at home accompanied and eased the way of US capitalist expansionism overseas. The only obstacle to this social contract was the ideological left, those members of the union movement, the media, etc. They were all possible supporters of the Vietminh and other liberation movements. McCarthy wanted to purge the union movement of these elements, but not destroy the union movement itself. Turning our clock forward to 1996, does anybody think that Buchanan intends to break the power of the US working-class? Does big business need Buchanan when the Arkansas labor-hater is doing such a great job?

The SWP has had a tremendous attraction toward “catastrophism”. Turning the clock forward from 1954 to 1988, we discover resident genius Jack Barnes telling a gathering of the faithful that capitalism finally is in the eleventh hour. In a speech on “What the 1987 Stock Market Crash Foretold”, he says:

“Neither past sources of rapid capital accumulation nor other options can enable the imperialist ruling classes to restore the long-term accelerating accumulation of world capitalism and avert an international depression and general social crisis….

“The period in the history of capitalist development that we are living through today is heading toward intensified class battles on a national and international scale, including wars and revolutionary situations. In order to squeeze out more wealth from the labor of exploited producers….

“Before the exploiters can unleash a victorious reign of reaction [i.e., fascism], however, the workers will have the first chance. The mightiest class battles of human history will provide the workers and exploited farmers in the United States and many other countries the opportunity to place revolutionary situations on the order of the day.”

Someone should have thrown a glass of cold water in the face of this guru before he made this speech. He predicted depression, but the financial markets ignored him. The stock market recovered from the 1987 crash and has now shot up to over 5000 points. His statement that nothing could have averted an international depression shows that he much better qualified at plotting purges than plotting out the development of capital accumulation.

His statement that the “period in the history of capitalist development that we are living through” is heading toward wars and revolution takes the word “period” and strips it of all meaning. Nine years have passed and there is neither depression nor general social crisis. Is a decade sufficient to define a period? I think all of us can benefit from Jack Barnes’ catastrophism if we simply redefine what a period is. Let us define it as a hundred years, then predictions of our Nostradamus might begin to make sense. Unfortunately, the art of politics consists of knowing what to do next and predictions of such a sweeping nature are worthless.

Sally Ryan posted an article from the Militant newspaper the other day. It states that Buchanan is a fascist:

“Buchanan is not primarily out to win votes, nor was he four years ago. He has set out to build a cadre of those committed to his program and willing to act in the streets to carry it out. He dubs his supporters the ‘Buchanan Brigades’….

“Commenting on the tone of a recent speech Buchanan gave to the New Hampshire legislature, Republican state representative Julie Brown, said, ‘It’s just mean – like a little Mussolini.’….

“While he is not about to get the Republican nomination, Buchanan is serious in his campaign. The week before his Louisiana win, he came in first in a straw poll of Alaska Republicans and placed third in polls in New Hampshire, where the first primary election will be held. He is building a base regardless of how the vote totals continue to fall. And he poses the only real alternative that can be put forward within the capitalist system to the like-sounding Clinton and Dole – a fascist alternative.”

These quotations tend to speak for a rather wide-spread analysis of Buchanan that a majority of the left supports, including my comrades on this list.

I want to offer a counter-analysis:

1) We are in a period of quiescence, not class confrontation.

Comrades, this is the good news and the bad news. It is good news because there is no threat of a fascist movement coming to power. It is bad news because it reflects how depoliticized the US working-class remains.

There is no fascist movement in the United States of any size or significance. It is time to stop talking about the militias of Montana. Let us speak instead of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. Has there been any growth of fascism? Of course not. In New York, my home town, there is no equivalent of the German- American bund, the fascists of the 1930s who had a base on New York’s upper east side, my neighborhood.

There are no attacks on socialist or trade union meetings. There are not even attacks on movements of allies of the working-class. The women’s movement, the black movement, the Central American movement organize peacefully and without interference for the simple reason that there are no violent gangs to subdue them.

The reason there are no violent gangs of fascists is the same as it was in the 1950s. We are not in a period of general social crisis. There are no frenzied elements of the petty-bourgeoisie or the lumpen proletariat being drawn into motion by demagogic and charismatic leaders like Mussolini or Hitler. There are no Silver Shirts that the labor or socialist movement needs protection from.

There is another key difference from the 1930s that we must consider. Capital and labor battled over the rights of labor within the prevailing factory system. Capitalism has transformed that factory system. Workers who remain in basic industry are not fighting for union representation. They simply want to keep their jobs. Those who remain employed will not tend to enter into confrontations with capital as long as wages and benefits retain a modicum of acceptability. That is the main reason industrial workers tend to be quiescent and will remain so for some time to come.

In the 1930s, workers occupied huge factories and battled the bosses over the right to a union. The bosses wanted to keep these factories open and strikes tended to take on a militant character in these showdowns. Strike actions tended to draw the working-class together and make it easier for socialists to get a hearing. This was because strikes were much more like mass actions and gave workers a sense of their power. The logical next step, according to the socialists, was trade union activity on a political level and, ultimately, rule by the workers themselves.

The brunt of the attack today has been downsizing and runaway capital. This means that working people have a fear of being unemployed more than anything else. This fear grips the nation. When a worker loses a job today, he or she tends to look for personal solutions: a move to another city, signing up for computer programming classes, etc. Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” vividly illustrated this type of personal approach Every unemployed auto worker in this film was trying to figure out a way to solve their problems on their own.

In the face of the atomization of the US working class, it is no surprise that many workers seem to vote for Buchanan. He offers them a variant on the personal solution. A worker may say to himself or herself, “Ah, this Buchanan’s a racist bigot, but he’s the only one who seems to care about what’s happening to me. I’ll take a gamble and give him my vote.” Voting is not politics. It is the opposite of politics. It is the capitalist system’s mechanism for preventing political action.

2) Buchanan is a bourgeois politician.

Pat Buchanan represents the thinking of an element of the US ruling class, and views the problems of the United States from within that perspective. Buchanan’s nationalism relates very closely to the nationalism of Ross Perot, another ruling class politician.

A consensus exists among the ruling class that US capital must take a global route. The capitalist state must eliminate trade barriers and capital must flow to where there is greatest possibility for profit. Buchanan articulates the resentments of a section of the bourgeoisie that wants to resist this consensus. It would be an interesting project to discover where Buchanan gets his money. This would be a more useful of one’s time than comparing his speeches to Father Coughlin or Benito Mussolini’s.

There are no parties in the United States in the European sense. In Europe, where there is a parliamentary system, people speak for clearly defined programs and are responsible to clearly defined constituencies. In the United States, politics revolves around “winner take all” campaigns. This tends to put a spotlight on presidential elections and magnify the statements of candidates all out of proportion.

Today we have minute textual analysis of what Buchanan is saying. His words take on a heightened, almost ultra-real quality. Since he is in a horse race, the press tends to worry over each and every inflammatory statement he makes. This tends to give his campaign a more threatening quality than is supported by the current state of class relations in the United States.

3) The way to fight Buchanan is by developing a class alternative.

The left needs a candidate who is as effective as Buchanan in drawing class lines.

The left has not been able to present an alternative to Buchanan. It has been making the same kinds of mistakes that hampered the German left in the 1920s: ultraleft sectarianism and opportunism. Our “Marxist-Leninist” groups, all 119 of them, offer themselves individually as the answer to Pat Buchanan. Meanwhile, social democrats and left-liberals at the Nation magazine and elsewhere are preparing all the reasons one can think of to vote for the “lesser evil”.

What the left needs to do is coalesce around a class-based, militant program. The left has not yet written this program, despite many assurances to the contrary we can hear on this list every day. It will have to be in the language of the American people, not in Marxist- Leninist jargon. Some people know how speak effectively to working people. I include Michael Moore the film-maker. I also include people like our own Doug Henwood, and Alex Cockburn and his co-editor Ken Silverstein who put out a newsletter called “Counterpunch”.

Most of all, the model we need is like Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Party of the turn of the century, minus the right-wing. Study the speeches of Debs and you get an idea of the kind of language we need to speak. Our mission today remains the same as it was in turn of the century Russia: to build a socialist party where none exists.



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