Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 24, 2017

What Caused the Holodomor?

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm


Mark Tauger: famines are caused by nature, not colonialism

COUNTERPUNCH, March 24, 2017

Three weeks ago, Grover Furr charged me with spreading fascist propaganda on CounterPunch because my film review of “Bitter Harvest” held Josef Stalin accountable for the famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. Like the Australian theology professor Roland Boer who blogs at “Stalin’s Moustache”, Furr’s political life revolves around celebrating Stalin’s greatest achievements—such as they were. I advise my readers, especially younger ones, to visit “Stalin’s Moustache” and Furr’s website to get a handle on a school of thought that has largely died a natural death.

Instead of answering Furr’s attack, I will turn my attention to the historiography of Mark Tauger who he describes in a prefatory note as being a “world authority” on the famine. Since Tauger blames a severe drought for the deaths of between 2.5 to 7 million Ukrainians, it is understandable why he would be hoisted on the shoulders of both Grover Furr and Roger Annis, a Canadian leftist and occasional CounterPunch contributor who endorsed Tauger on his “New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond” website as “One of the world’s leading scholars on the development of agriculture in the Soviet Union”. So, you get the picture. If you are in the business of representing Ukraine as a victim of Stalinist or Putinist colonial brutality, Tauger is essential for turning that victim into a criminal.

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March 22, 2017

A follow-up on the Enlightenment

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Was Franz Boas an “early intellectual debunker” of pseudo-science? Not exactly

When I check the WordPress dashboard of my blog each day, I am always curious to see who has linked to the Unrepentant Marxist. A couple of days ago, I discovered that Ross Wolfe had linked to my blog as part of his response to the Jacobin article by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that made an amalgam between anti-Semitism and anti-Enlightenment philosophy, whose exponents ranged from William James to Martin Heidegger in scattergun fashion. For Frim and Fluss (what evocative Hobbit-like names), Marx was part of the “Enlightenment” tradition and once philosophers such as Nietzsche began to criticize that tradition, it opened a Pandora’s Box that led to fascism.

Much of Wolfe’s commentary is couched in the sort of language found in the grad school milieu of the Platypus club that expelled him for some reason a few years ago: “Even Ideologiekritik ought to be grounded in something more solid than Foucauldean discourse analysis or Derridean textual marginalia.” My mind tends to wander when I read this sort of thing.

I raced forward to see what Wolfe had to say about my article. Here it was:

Fluss and Frim are doubtless right that the Enlightenment is presently under attack by a host of both antimodernist and postmodernist ideologues, some even purporting to be from the Left (like the “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect, who’s relinquished his previous support for Sokal in order to better crusade against the dastardly Vivek Chibber). A brilliant rebuttal to Proyect’s tendentious quotation of Kant’s anthropology, as well as the still more banal survey of Diderot, Voltaire, Holbach, Kant, and Hegel conducted over at Suburban Idiocies, is once again presented by Goldner: “Polling Enlightenment figures for their views on slavery and race is… is an extremely limited approach to the question, susceptible to the worst kind of anachronism. What was remarkable about the Enlightenment, in a world context, was not that some of its distinguished figures supported slavery and white supremacy but that significant numbers of them opposed both. Slavery as an institution flourished in the colorblind sixteenth-century Mediterranean slave pool. None of the participating societies, Christian or Muslim, European, Turkish, Arab or African, ever questioned it.”

I might try to defend myself against the charge of being an “antimodernist” if I knew what that meant. How does one take a position on “modernity”? Does that mean being a Luddite or wearing clothing made of hemp? Or using a typewriter instead of a Macbook? I really have no idea. In terms of me being a “postmodernist ideologue”, this makes about as much sense as describing someone like Jim Blaut a “postmodernist” because he would have polemicized against Chibber or anybody else espousing Political Marxism.

Goldner is never at a loss for words. The article cited by Wolfe contains 17,000 of them and there’s not much point in replying, even if I had the time. I am interested in the final paragraph, which is the real takeaway:

For many of these post-Enlightenment developments, the Enlightenment itself is of course not to be blamed. Many Social Darwinists, eugenicists, suffragettes, Progressives and socialists ca. 1900 undoubtedly identified with the Enlightenment and thought their ideas of “science”, including “scientific” demonstration of the innate inferiority of peoples of color, were an extension of the Enlightenment project, and the preceding discussion shows they in fact had their Enlightenment predecessors. Nevertheless, the early intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science, such as Boas, were also heirs to the Enlightenment. When the Enlightenment is remembered today, it is not Bernier, Buffon and Blumenbach who first come to mind, but rather Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Kant (as philosopher, not as anthropologist)  and Paine, and one could do worse than to summarize their legacy as the debunking of mystification. The Enlightenment contributed to the Western theory of race, and the real separation of culture from biology was the work of post-Enlightenment figures such as Marx, and above all the real historical movement of the past century. Nevertheless, when the Enlightenment is attacked today by Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Hindu fundamentalists for separating religion and state, or by the new biologism of the New Right or the Afrocentrists for its universalism, or by the post-modernists as an ideology of and for “white European males”, it is the best of the Enlightenment, the “Liberté- Egalité- Fraternité” of the Parisian and Haitian masses in 1794, and the best post-Enlightenment heirs such as Marx, which are the real targets.  Such attacks remind us that, once critique is separated from the limitations of the Enlightenment outlined here, there is plenty of mystification still to be debunked.

The problem with all this is that falls within the purview of the history of ideas, which is exactly what I thought was a mistake. If Heidegger was a symbol of the consequences of anti-Enlightenment thinking, how do you explain his influence on his two students Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas who could never be confused with the alt-right that Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss were amalgamating with anti-Enlightenment thought?

Perhaps Goldner was not familiar enough with Franz Boas when he cited him as one of the “intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science”. If you’ve spent any time studying the relationship between anthropologists and native peoples, you’d be hesitant to endorse him.

While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Only 8 months after their arrival, four of the six Eskimos had died of tuberculosis. One returned to Greenland and the last, a young boy named Minik who was the son of Qisuk, one of the deceased, remained in the custody of William Wallace, the Superintendent of the Museum. When Minik learned that tribal customs required the bones of ancestors be interred in their homeland, he was convinced by Boas and Wallace that a burial of the bones in New York City would suffice. When he reached the age of 15, he learned that Boas and Wallace had lied to him. The skeleton was being warehoused in the Museum’s basement, alongside hundreds of other bones that belonged to indigenous peoples. In “Skull Wars,” a book focused on the Kennewick man controversy, David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, recounts Boas’s flippant attitude toward the entire affair:

Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.”

Minik’s lifelong struggle to retrieve his father’s skeleton and return them to his native soil has been documented in Ken Harper’s “Give Me My Father’s Body: The Story of Minik, the New York Eskimo.” A review of this book by Rhode Island College professor Russell A. Potter includes this observation on the cold-blooded “scientific” stance of Boas and Alfred Kroeber, a student of Boas’s who became famous for his writings on “Ishi”, the last hunter-gatherer in California.

They were brought to a damp basement room, and as might have been foreseen, most of them soon came down with tuberculosis, against which they had little resistance. Studied, even as they were dying, by some of the most prominent anthropologists of the day, including Franz Boas (also remembered as Zora Neale Hurston’s thesis advisor) and Alfred Kroeber (“discoverer” of Ishi and father of science-fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin), their last days were spent in agonizing pain without benefit of meaningful medical attention.

Considering that Franz Boas was one of the foremost critics of racial doctrines in the US, one must surely wonder about the nature of such a social science. I think the key to understanding this kind of tunnel vision is unequal power relationships. No matter how enlightened the scientist, there is a built-in imbalance in the way that one side is doing the studying and the other side is being studied. This imbalance rests on economic inequality. “Primitive” peoples simply lack the capital to fund scientific expeditions of the sort that Boas thought useful. Historical laws of capital accumulation made it impossible for Eskimos to send ships to countries like the United States to retrieve specimens to be studied in Greenland or Alaska. Fundamentally, anthropology rests on imperialist inequality no matter the good intentions of the scholars involved.


March 21, 2017

Robert Silvers, a Founding Editor of New York Review of Books, Dies at 87

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

Robert Silvers

From the NY Times obituary:

Robert B. Silvers, a founder of The New York Review of Books, which under his editorship became one of the premier intellectual journals in the United States, a showcase for extended, thoughtful essays on literature and politics by eminent writers, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

Rea S. Hederman, the publisher of The Review, confirmed the death.

The New York Review, founded in 1963, was born with a mission — to raise the standards of book reviewing and literary discussion in the United States and nurture a hybrid form of politico-cultural essay. Mr. Silvers brought to its pages a self-effacing, almost priestly sense of devotion that ultimately made him indistinguishable from the publication he edited, and it from him.

He shared editorial duties with Barbara Epstein until her death in 2006, but it was Mr. Silvers who came to embody The Review’s mystique, despite, or perhaps because of, his insistence on remaining a behind-the-scenes presence, loath to grant interviews or make public appearances.

“I put my name on the paper, and the rest I don’t care to be known,” he told Philip Nobile, the author of “Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and The New York Review of Books” (1974). In a 2008 interview for the online program Thoughtcast, Mr. Silvers said: “The editor is a middleman. The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”

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My take on the NY Review of Books from May 21, 2004:

In the winter of 1962-63, during a strike of the NY Times, Robert Silvers and a few close friends decided to launch the New York Review of Books, which is considered the premier intellectual print journal outside of academia.

When I first joined the SWP in 1967, I was a regular reader of the New York Review. Once when I was sitting at party headquarters thumbing through its pages, an old-timer named Harry Ring raised an eyebrow and said, “Oh, you’re reading the social democratic press.” Of course, I practically took the magazine out and burned it after hearing that. As I began shamefacedly apologizing for reading it, Harry reassured me that if he had the time, he’d read it too since it is important to keep track of the social democracy. These words were hardly reassuring. Did I have so much time on my hands because I was one of those half-digested petty-bourgeois elements that James P. Cannon railed against during the Shachtman-Burnham fight?

This is not to say that the New York Review of 1967 was something like the rancid Dissent Magazine of today. It regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and even ran a famous article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that “morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.” This was accompanied by do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail on its cover.

Like nearly everything else that was going on in the 1980s and 90s, the NY Review of Books began a steady shift to the right. To a large extent, this was a function of the growing commercial success of the magazine. It also reflected a general malaise of New Yorkers that something was deeply wrong with their beloved city, which was under siege from homeless beggars, crack-inspired violence and other threats to a perfect urban tableau lifted from the latest Woody Allen movie.

So instead of printing articles on the need for armed struggle, they ran countless articles by Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker/philosopher who was the George Soros of his day. Anxiously warning his upscale readers about the crisis of the system, his recommendations included the need for a more enlightened management in politics and a willingness on the part of the masses to accept austerity. During this period, Rohatyn was a frequent guest at a salon run by Robert Silvers and his literary and academic pals.

Around this time, novelist William Styron said, “I don’t regard it any longer as a journal with a specific point of view.” John Leonard, editor of The New York Times Book Review during the early 1970s and a respectable liberal, said, “I don’t think anyone would describe it as left-wing politically.” Citing The New York Review’s preference for such contributors as Felix Rohatyn on economic issues and Stanley Hoffman on foreign policy topics, Leonard commented, “It’s a lot closer to Commentary than it is to The Nation.” (The Washington Post, October 27, 1988)

The magazine became just the place for intellectuals to write an open letter about the treatment of some writer in a Communist dungeon, but not the sort of place to read a truly trenchant analysis of what was wrong with American capitalism. It was also a kind of command center for the wars in the Balkans with Tim Judah writing a flood of articles defending plucky Bosnian Muslims against murdering Serb hordes.

Considering this background, I was somewhat startled (but not too much so) to discover the magazine championed in the latest Nation by a chap named Scott Sherman. Titled “The Rebirth of the NYRB“, it advises the reader that the magazine is once again “a powerful and combative actor on the political scene.” Why? It seems that it published the resignation letter of Brady Kiesling, a career US diplomat, which stated among other things that: “Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson…. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.”

I don’t know how to quite break it to comrade Sherman, but at this stage of the game just about everybody in the USA except Bush, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Rumsfeld are beginning to feel exactly the same way. This morning, the 80 year old publisher of “USA Today”, a bland periodical that defends US interests nearly blindly, called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. As Willy Loman said just before his suicide, “The woods are burning.”

Sherman is cheered by Bard professor Ian Buruma’s scathing review of Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism,” a liberal call for war on Wahhabism. Perhaps Sherman did not grasp that Buruma might have seen Berman as competition in a field that he was carving out for himself. Buruma’s own “The Origins of Occidentalism” makes practically the same arguments as Berman’s, although ostensibly with less pomposity. I suppose anything is an improvement over the wretched Paul Berman, but hardly worth crowing about in the Nation Magazine.

In trying to explain the New York Review’s alleged shift to the left, Sherman calls upon Mark Danner, another Bard College public intellectual and frequent contributor to the magazine after graduating from Harvard in the early 1980s. According to Sherman, Danner “has recently produced some searching essays in the Review about Iraq”.

Just like “plastic” was a key word in “The Graduate”, Danner has a one word explanation for the New York Review’s return to the barricades: “Vietnam.” Danner is quoted as saying that, “If you look back over the Review’s history, you’ll find that periods of crisis bring out the best editorial instincts of the leadership of The New York Review. It certainly happened with Vietnam and Iran/contra. It gets the juices flowing.”

Characteristically, what Sherman fails to see is that despite all the “searching” in Danner’s articles, he remains a supporter of the war as should be clear from a recent New York Review article:

“President Bush’s audacious project in Iraq was always going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, but without political steadfastness and resilience, it had no chance to succeed. This autumn in Baghdad, a ruthless insurgency, growing but still in its infancy, has managed to make the President retreat from his project, and has worked, with growing success, to divide Iraqis from the Americans who claim to govern them. These insurgents cannot win, but by seizing on Washington’s mistakes and working relentlessly to widen the fault lines in occupied Iraq, they threaten to prevent what President Bush sent the US military to achieve: a stable, democratic, and peaceful Iraq, at the heart of a stable and democratic Middle East.”

I supposed beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this just strikes me as apologetics for the same old shit.

My take on the NY Review of Books coverage of Syria:

Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.

Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:

The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.

As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.

On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:

While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.

Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.

Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:

[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.

Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.

While Glass could never be considered a world-class intellectual, NY Review regular David Bromwich occupies a rather lofty perch at Yale University, where he is Sterling Professor of English. A Sterling Professorship is the highest academic rank at Yale, awarded to the elite’s elite. It has nothing to do with silver but is named after John William Sterling who graduated in 1864 and founded the white shoe New York law firm Shearman & Sterling. He bequeathed a ten-million-dollar endowment to feather the nest of superstar academics like Bromwich, who combines an academic career with less than stellar analyses of current events.

Bromwich wrote an article for the NY Review on June 20th 2013 titled “Stay out of Syria!” It was a collection of pro-Ba‘athist talking points.

While directed against NY Times editor Bill Keller’s urging that the US conduct an Iraq-style invasion, a position that was likely to offend the sensibilities of the NY Review’s readers and even more likely to never happen, Bromwich slid easily into slander against those who were forced to take up arms against a vicious dictatorship.

Our Sterling Professor takes the word of ‘qualified investigator’ Carla Del Ponte, a UN commissioner who denied the Ba‘athists had deployed sarin: ‘This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.’ This is the very same Del Ponte investigated for prosecutorial misconduct for her role in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia wars as the Guardian reported on August 18th 2010:

“Some of the witnesses had referred to pressure and intimidation to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution,” said a statement from the judge in the Seselj case. “The prosecution allegedly obtained statements illegally, by threatening, intimidating and/or buying [witnesses] off.”

One Serbian witness said he was offered a well-paid job in the US in return for testimony favourable to the prosecution.

Bromwich makes sure to mention the crazed rebel who took a bite out of a dead Syrian soldier’s heart. Among those whose goal it is to make al-Assad seem reasonable by comparison, this singular act of a shell-shocked fighter has taken on iconic proportions. We must conclude that in our Yale professor’s moral calculus, the act of firing rockets originally intended to pulverize battleships or hydroelectric dams into tenement buildings is a normal way of conducting warfare, analogous perhaps to prizefighting.

The NYRB occupies a unique space in American belles lettres. Through its pages academics can address a broad audience about important matters on a weekly basis. It was launched by Robert Silvers and a few close friends during a strike at the New York Times in the winter of 1962-63. Previously Silvers held editorial posts at the Paris Review and Harper’s. As the Vietnam War and student radicalization penetrated American consciousness, the magazine regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and even ran an article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that ‘morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.’ This was accompanied by a do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail.

As Silvers and his staff grew older and wealthier, and as the 1960s radicalization faded, the magazine, with American liberalism, shifted toward the center – no longer a sounding board for the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party but just another voice recognizing the inevitability of Clinton-style neoliberalism.

If Silvers ever feels the need to defend himself against charges that the magazine is giving backhanded support to al-Assad, he points to the occasional article decrying rights violations in Syria, such as Annie Sparrow’s February 20th 2014 piece on the polio epidemic she describes as a ‘a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war—a war crime of truly epidemic proportions.’ While nobody would gainsay the need for such articles, they are undermined by mendacious reporting of Glass and Bromwich which almost makes the case for the crimes of ‘truly epidemic proportions’.

The editors are reflecting the foreign policy imperatives of the Obama administration, which decided long ago that the preservation of Ba‘athist rule served American interests. Elite opinion is very sensitive to America’s role as hegemon, the first line of defense for liberal civilization. Just as it once decided that this meant holding the line against Communism, it now sees Islamic extremism as the first enemy.

For all the hysteria over looming American intervention in Syria, if it does come it’s more likely to strike jihadist elements of the rebel forces than the dictatorship. On March 13th 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported:

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

‘Extremists’ might be interpreted to encompass every fighter not conforming to the Obama administration’s definition of “moderate”, almost certainly including those who cry “Allahu Akbar” on destroying a regime helicopter.

March 20, 2017

Where did I come from? The Khazar hypothesis

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

When I was in high school, I always assumed that I was a Sephardic Jew since my last name was the same as the Spanish word for project (el proyecto). It was only years later that I discovered in a book of Jewish surnames put together by Czarist scribes that is available at the YIVO library in NYC (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Yiddish Scientific Institute) that the name was Yiddish for the counting house of a tax farmer, prevalent in the Slutsk district of Byelorussia in the 1860s.

A tax farmer was a court Jew historically, someone authorized to collect taxes for a monarch or other landed gentry for a percentage of the take. When I read Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question” shortly after joining the SWP, I was persuaded that my ancestors were like those described in the book—people who carried out financial transactions that were banned by the church. When a Christian banking class began to emerge in the late middle ages, the old-line Jewish bankers and tax collectors et al were banished from Spain, England and elsewhere. They headed east to Poland and Russia, where feudalism persisted. From various accounts, I have learned that the most vicious pogroms of the 19th century were carried out against tax collectors on estates owned by the Russian and Polish aristocracy who had little contact with the serfs they exploited.

The only alternative history of the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews is based on Khazaria, a Jewish kingdom that existed from 800 to 1000 AD. The most famous account of the kingdom is found in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” that I read when it came out in 1976. Based on scholarship that the Jewish establishment, particularly those identifying with the Zionist project, dismissed as nonsense, the book argues that a Turkic-speaking nomadic people decided to adopt Judaism as a way of establishing an ethnic/religious identity that would serve as a firewall against Christianity to the West and Islam to the East.

Up until recently, I assumed that Khazaria was in the eastern regions of Turkey that they call Anatolia. But I was quite surprised that the kingdom was north of the Black Sea (Turkey lies to the south of the sea) in a geographical region largely occupied by Ukraine.

This I learned from reading in Paul Magocsi’s fascinating 894-page “A History of Ukraine”. In the chapter titled “The Slavs and the Khazars”, Magocsi describes the Jewish state as a place where the pagan Slavic peoples began to flourish under a regime that provided a stable, peaceful and tolerant environment for different faiths in the same manner that North African Muslim states around the same time provided a haven for Jews. Magocsi writes:

Living within the protective shadow of the Pax Khazaria, the Slavic tribes on Ukrainian lands were spared for a while the worst nomadic invasions from the east, and, as a result, between the seventh and ninth centuries they were able to expand their agricultural and trading activities. But despite such protection, some Slavic princes began to resent their vassal-like relationship to the Khazar rulers. For the longest time, however, the Slavs were not united, and no individual tribe had the strength to confront the Khazar Kaganate. Building up the necessary strength became a possibility only in the mid-ninth century, with a new development in the region of Kiev. This development combined local forces with a group of leaders from Scandinavia — the Varangians — and the result was the eventual consolidation of a new power known as Rus’. How did this new phenomenon arise? Or, to cite the opening passage of the Primary Chronicle, the most famous discussion of the subject, what was “the origin of the land of Rus’, [and of] the first princes of Kiev, and from what source did the land of Rus’ have its beginning?”

It was up to Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to assemble an army to break the power of the Khazars and begin the process of creating a Christian empire over the territory once ruled by the Jews. Vladimir was a scion of the Viking royalty who had expanded their influence eastward over the nomadic Slavic tribes and the rest is history.

After reading Magocsi’s account, I decided to have a look at Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” that was published by Verso in 2009. As you might glean from the title, Sand rejects the notion that the Jews who came to live in Israel as part of the Zionist colonizing project had little biological ties to those who lived in Palestine in the time of Jesus. In a nutshell, he believes that the Khazar Jews continued to live in the same way as they always had but under Christian rule. You might ask yourself how they ended up speaking Yiddish, a language with obviously close relations to German. He says that this is a result of some German Jewish inflow into the area. Since the educated elites from Germany were socially superior to the native Jewish population, their language and liturgy eventually became hegemonic. I doubt if any of this will ever be resolved short of an exhaustive archaeological project that few Jewish scholars—mostly in sympathy with Zionist ideology—would bother to undertake. It is better to continue with the old time legends and myths about the Red Sea being parted, etc.

While most Ashkenazy Jews like Golda Meier or David Ben-Gurion would likely not make such a claim, it was doubtful that any of them would acknowledge being descendants of the Khazars who were Turkic converts to a faith that had one foot in traditional Jewish liturgy and the other in an alien culture that persists to this day, if you look carefully for it. Rejecting implicitly Abram Leon’s thesis that the Jews of Eastern Europe had fled from France, Germany and England, Sand writes:

At the center of the Jewish townlet stood the synagogue, with a double dome reminiscent of the Eastern pagoda. Jewish dress in Eastern Europe did not resemble that of the Jews of France or Germany. The yarmulke—also derived from a Turkic word—and the fur hat worn over it were more reminiscent of the people of the Caucasus and the horsemen of the steppes than of Talmudic scholars from Mainz or merchants from Worms. These garments, like the long silk caftan worn chiefly on the Sabbath, differed from clothing worn by the Belorussian or Ukrainian peasants. But any mention these features and others—from food to humor, from clothing to chants, connected to the specific cultural morphology of their daily life and their tory—scarcely interested the scholars who were occupied in inventing the eternal history of the “people of Israel.” They could not come to terms with the troublesome fact that there had never been a Jewish people’s culture, but only popular Yiddish culture that resembled the cultures of their neighbors much more than it did those of the Jewish communities of Western Europe or North Africa.

I was intrigued by the reference to yarmulke being derived from the Turkish. Wikipedia states that the word probably from the Turkish yağmurluk (“rainwear”), though it could also be from Medieval Latin almutia (“hood, cowl”).

In terms of the fur hat, that is probably a reference to the shtreimel worn by Satmar Hasidim. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is of Crimean Tatar origin, which is consistent with Sand’s account of how many Khazaris ended up in Crimea.

A Jew in a shtreimel

One of the more interesting discussions of the Khazarites can be found in “A History of the Jews”, written by Ilan Halevi who was a high-ranking Jewish member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His discussion of the linguistic affinities between the long-gone Jewish state and other ethnicities is intriguing:

Some of these groups, however, took control, for considerable lengths of time, major communication centres, establishing around them short-quasi-states which entered into contact with the neighbouring empires in complex relationships of clientage and suzerainty, essentially on the imperial need for human barriers against the main body of the wave. For both Byzantium and Persia, the Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab tribes had played this role of frontier guards against the tribes of the desert. It was against this background that there appeared, in the 6th century, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea, the kingdom of the Khazars. Originally the term “Khazar” did not describe a particular ethnic group: it was a sort generic name for all the Turco-Mongol peoples on the move in this region. It seems that the word itself derives from a Turkish root meaning “nomad” in which case it would be a Turkish equivalent of the Arabic bedu (Bedouin) describing, within a multi-tribal language, not an ethno-linguistic group, but a sociological category, the occupation and way of life of whole populations and even, at the extreme, a value system based on the specifity of this mode of organization. Thus, the Khazars were called Kaissak in the Urals, and Kazakh on the borders of China and Afghanistan where the Russian revolution would establish Kazakhstan; from their name would come the name of the Cossacks and the English word “Hussar”. But the Turcoman peoples of the Volga and the Caspian or the Crimea, whose own ethnic names were the Kalmyks and the Khirghiz, the Uzbeks and the Bashkirs, the Tatars called Tartars and many others, were, at the time of which we are speaking, Khazars on every criterion.

The only other linguistic item worth mentioning is that the king of the Khazars was called the Kagan. That’s the same name of the Supreme Court justice as well as many other Jews living in Brooklyn and elsewhere. If there was any justice in the world, the Zionists should have stayed out of the Middle East and come to Brooklyn instead—the real homeland of the Jews.


March 17, 2017

Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,journalism — louisproyect @ 3:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, March 17, 2017

Scialabba for the Defense

Four years ago I reviewed George Scialabba’s For the Republic: Political Essays in CounterPunch and am pleased to now review his latest collection Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015, whose title is borrowed from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, a poem written on the eve of WWII:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Although the book stops a year before Donald Trump’s election, there is no better way to understand this low, dishonest president than by reading Scialabba’s take on those who paved the way for him, especially Ronald Reagan. While I certainly understand how surprised some Americans are by Donald Trump’s awfulness, as if he was some sort of historical deus ex machina, I cannot escape a sense of déjà vu as if the years 1981-1989 were being replayed. Are we being forced to endure horrible reactionary presidents for all of eternity like Bill Murray enduring Groundhog’s Day? God help us.

Read full review

March 14, 2017

Tickling Giants

Filed under: Egypt,Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

In March 2011, a heart surgeon named Bassem Youssef living in Cairo was inspired to produce Youtube videos in which he provided satirical commentary on the Mubarak dictatorship that rapidly grew viral, so much so that he landed a weekly TV show titled “The Show” that enjoyed the same kind of popularity. He had an audience of 30 million people, while Jon Stewart’s show, which Youssef openly credits as his inspiration, never reached more than 2 million.

His meteoric rise and his demise under General al-Sisi’s dictatorship are documented in a film titled “Tickling Giants” that opens today at the IFC in NY and a number of other cities a week later (check http://ticklinggiants.com/ for venues.) It is directed by Sara Taksler, a senior producer for “The Jon Stewart Show” who decided to make a documentary about Youssef after he made a guest appearance there in June 2012.

When you see excerpts from Youssef’s show, the influence of Jon Stewart is unmistakable. From the body language of the host, his grimaces, to the mocking of the high and mighty, you are reminded that comedy is universal.

As amusing as the film is, it has a deadly serious mission, which is to demonstrate how the hopes of Tahrir Square were dashed by both the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi and the military coup that toppled it.

Youssef reached 30 million viewers because his show articulated the yearnings of the Egyptian people for freedom of expression, an end to military or clerical authoritarianism and the sort of crony capitalism that pervades the entire region. Despite his obviously secular identity, Youssef was beloved by observant Muslims of the lower classes who felt victimized by the nation’s one-percent.

Like most Egyptians, Youssef and his staff were jubilant over Mubarak’s resignation but felt short-changed by the election of Morsi, whose attempts at consolidating an Islamic state in the style of Erdogan’s AKP were a clear violation of the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring. When Youssef began mocking Morsi, who is a tempting target, there was widespread support.

The election of Generaal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was greeted in the same gloves off spirit. It made no difference to Youssef who was the head of state. If the regime continued to operate in the same fashion as Mubarak but with cosmetic changes, he would go for the jugular. What he didn’t anticipate was the degree to which a fanatical reactionary base could be assembled to agitate against his show and the partnership it formed with the media establishment in Egypt that viewed him as a threat to the el-Sisi regime. The ruling class had decided to clamp down on civil liberties and Bassem Youssef was unacceptable for his alleged insults to the army and to the Egyptian nation.

While watching this extremely compelling documentary, I could not help but think of President Trump who is drawing from the same bag of tricks as al-Sisi but with a lot less license to kill. Two hundred and thirty years of bourgeois democracy creates institutions that are much more deeply rooted than what exists in Egypt.

In November 2016, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the first head of state in the Arab world to congratulate Trump on his electoral victory to the dismay of those Egyptians who used to be loyal fans of Bassem Youssef’s “The Show”. For Trump, al-Sisi was a “fantastic guy” whose coup against the Muslim Brotherhood was praiseworthy: “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.”

According to Juan Cole, the dictator al-Sisi got on the phone with Bashar al-Assad after his meeting with Trump to gloat over the green light he got from the White House to crush “the terrorists”. With Trump cementing ties to Netanyahu, al-Sisi and Assad, it continues to amaze me that anybody on the left can continue to maintain illusions about him being an alternative to Hillary Clinton.

With Assad firmly in control of much of Syria today, it is easy to give in to a sense of futility. In the press notes, Youssef is asked to comment about the feeling Egyptians might have about the Arab Spring being a failure. His response is one that should be considered by those succumbing to the same sort of feelings:

Nothing is stagnant. We live in a very dynamic world and things change all the time. Four years ago, we never thought that we, in Egypt, would get rid of a dictator and start this kind of a political and cultural revolution, but it suddenly happened. And who could have imagined me, a doctor, of all people, becoming this media star? Unimaginable. You never know what will happen. We are living now in a much faster era. In the Middle East, we have a huge younger generation that is more connected. Oppressive governments can’t control the internet like they could with television networks and newspapers. They can’t rule people with the same methods that were employed on their parents in 1950s and ‘60s – outdated, obsolete kind of propaganda that people will not buy into it for the rest of their lives.

I am optimistic. I don’t think the revolution is dead. It’s just sleeping for now. When will people wake up again? I don’t know. Maybe in my lifetime. Maybe my daughter will carry on “The Show, Part Two.” She is very feisty and she’s much funnier than me and she’s only three years old. So she has a lot of time to practice.


March 13, 2017

Enlightenment values? No thanks

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

“The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.”

An article on the Jacobin website titled “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia” by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss tries to explain how Reza Jorjani, a fellow PhD graduate of the State University of Stony Brook philosophy department, turned into a leader of the alt-right. Jorjani sounds like a real piece of work:

Jorjani’s writings, political activities, speeches, and media appearances have drawn charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia. In one instance, he suggested that Yahweh and Allah were actually space aliens who enslaved their believers and tricked them into committing genocide. He has openly characterized certain high-ranking Nazi officials as akin to supermen with psychic powers. While Jorjani has vehemently denied the charges of bigotry leveled against him, his public statements do make you wonder.

What caught my eye was how inconsistent at first blush his rightwing politics were with Stony Brook’s department:

Stony Brook’s philosophy department, famous for its pluralism and progressive politics, seems like an unlikely context for this scandal. Many of the department’s students and professors identify themselves as leftists and liberals. Their focus on Continental philosophy includes research on critical theory, feminism, post-colonialism, and queer and critical-race theories. It came as a great shock, then, that one of Stony Brook’s newest alums had become the self-appointed spokesperson for “Aryan Imperium.”

It seems that it was the department’s opposition to “Enlightenment values” that explains this one graduate’s cryptofascist beliefs. “While it seems surprising that someone like Jorjani would come out of a self-consciously progressive department, suspicion of Enlightenment rationalism has become endemic to liberal philosophy programs like the one at Stony Brook.” They argue:

By mid-century, an impatient and demoralized Left increasingly threw the Enlightenment baby out with the bourgeois bathwater.

Thinkers blamed universalism, determinism, and what appeared as a deadening mechanical worldview for the mass slaughter of two world wars, the atrocities of the Holocaust, the horror of the atomic bomb, and the misery of industrial capitalism.

Thus began what Georg Lukàcs called the marrying of “Left ethics with Right Epistemology,” a project that tried to derive progressive politics and notions like freedom, equality, and solidarity from a more traditional view of existence akin to the Counter-Enlightenment. Understanding trends in today’s academic Left requires recognizing this crucial shift.

Much of this contemporary thought reinstates an enchanted view of the world that is inherently pluralistic. Drawing on figures like Nietzsche and Heidegger, Left thinkers learned to be suspicious of the rationality that once belonged to them.

To cap it off, they credit Vivek Chibber for fighting a bloody but unbowed struggle against this viral anti-Enlightenment infection that has made it difficult for Marxists like him and presumably other professors writing for Jacobin like Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss to get a hearing. Yes, Lyotard and Baudrillard not only crowded them out but also paved the way for Reza Jorjani.

This does not exactly map to my own experience. Like Stony Brook, the New School graduate philosophy department was one of the few places in the USA where the Continental thinkers were dominant. I was there primarily to avoid the draft but did appreciate taking classes with men like Hans Jonas, who was very close to Hannah Arendt and was featured as a character in her biopic. I also studied with Aaron Gurwitsch, who was the world’s leading authority on Husserl.

Since Jorjani is described as a virtual disciple of Heidegger, it is worth considering some connections between my ostensibly anti-Enlightenment professors and the German author of the existentialist classic “Being and Time” as well as some openly Nazi tracts.

Heidegger dedicated “Being and Time” to Edmund Husserl, a Jew who he served as personal assistant from 1920 to 1923. While Husserl’s emphasis was on resolving the contradictions of Cartesian dualism within the framework of epistemology, he had an enormous influence on 20th century existentialism. Not only did his theory of intentionality reverberate in Heidegger’s writings; he was also a major influence on Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, two Communists.

Jonas’s relationship to Heidegger was even more complicated. In 1966 Jonas’s “Phenomenon of Life” was published, a work considered by many to be as important to the emergence of Green politics as anything written by Rudolf Bahro. It is widely recognized that Heidegger was a major influence on Jonas, who was his student alongside Hannah Arendt, also under his sway intellectually as well as his lover.

Heidegger supervised Jonas’s dissertation, while Husserl served as his adviser. For some, the Green values espoused in “Phenomenon of Life” were probably a worrisome sign that there has always been a dark undercurrent to ecological philosophy. Since much of Heidegger’s philosophy reflects a disenchantment with technology and industrial society, it is inevitable that some would make an amalgam between Heidegger, Nazism and the reactionary impulses that supposedly drive deep ecology.

Martin Durkin, called the Michael Moore of the right, connected the dots in a blog post titled “NAZI GREENS – An Inconvenient History”:

Heidegger argues against the ‘monstrous’ building of hydroelectric dams on the Rhine and sings the praises of wind power: ‘modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.  But does not this hold true for the old windmill as well?  No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock the energy from the air currents in order to store it.’

Durkin even manages to concur with Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that this toxic brew of nature worship and Hitlerism has everything to do with a rejection of Enlightenment values. He argues that the Nazis were forerunners of today’s Green movement and Heidegger was its prophet. A “rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of the Enlightenment and its humanist values” was at the core of National Socialism that motivated men to “turn on the gas taps at Auschwitz”.

Although I never took the idea seriously that Heidegger’s philosophy led to Nazism, I had the same reaction to “anti-Enlightenment” intellectual trends twenty years ago when Alan Sokal’s hoax seemed tantamount to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg. Fed up as I was at the time with Judith Butler’s unreadable prose and the notion that Marxism was guilty of imposing an oppressive “metanarrative” on social movements, I was ready to hoist Sokal on my shoulders. He was certainly skinny enough. In “Fashionable Nonsense”, a book co-authored with Jean Bricmont, Sokal sounds almost identical to Frim and Fluss:

Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, “postmodernism”: an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a “narration”, a “myth” or a social construction among many others.

While there is little doubt that the Enlightenment was an improvement over the stranglehold that the Church had over feudal society, I don’t find much basis for counting Marx as an enlightenment thinker. To start with, most scholars would regard him as a post-Hegelian alongside Feuerbach, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

As I stated earlier, Aaron Gurwitsch considered Husserl to be the first philosopher to have transcended the dualism/monism dialectic that had begun with Descartes and reached a kind of climax with Immanuel Kant. Everything after Kant, including Hegel, reflected an impasse that could not resolve the mind-matter conundrum that was triggered by Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” within conventional philosophical methodology. Kant’s categories supposedly created a synthesis of the ego and the surrounding, and for some unknowable, world.

If Kant is the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought, Marx somehow missed the point. In “German Ideology”, he was rudely dismissive of what he considered to be a bourgeois moralist:

The state of affairs in Germany at the end of the last century is fully reflected in Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”. While the French bourgeoisie, by means of the most colossal revolution that history has ever known, was achieving domination and conquering the Continent of Europe, while the already politically emancipated English bourgeoisie was revolutionising industry and subjugating India politically, and all the rest of the world commercially, the impotent German burghers did not get any further than “good will”. Kant was satisfied with “good will” alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond. Kant’s good will fully corresponds to the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common, national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. These petty, local interests had as their counterpart, on the one hand, the truly local and provincial narrow-mindedness of the German burghers and, on the other hand, their cosmopolitan swollen-headedness.

In fact, the great Enlightenment that started with Descartes and came to a climax with Kant was pretty much a reflection of the state of bourgeois society at a given time. Probably the only good thing to come out of the Enlightenment was French materialism, a current that Marx paid tribute to in his early “The Holy Family”. For Marx, it “clearly expressed struggle against the metaphysics of the seventeenth century, and against all metaphysics, in particular that of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz.” So, unlike Frim and Fluss who eulogize Spinoza as the virtual anti-Trump whose “universalism entailed that governments exercise tolerance toward minority communities and grant them political emancipation as citizens without requiring them to shed their particular religious and cultural identities”, Marx would have certainly considered him a banal moralist like Kant.

Speaking of Kant, I am not sure that he holds up well as a member of our Enlightenment values club considering what he wrote in his 1764 “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”:

The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. [David] Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. The religion of fetishes so wide-spread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.

Yeah, so beautiful and sublime. I doubt that any words that came out of Heidegger’s mouth in a university classroom were as racist as this. Furthermore, if Reza Jorjani had been properly educated in Enlightenment values rather than relying on its critics, I doubt that it would have made much difference. After all, every Christian soldier who went on colonizing missions to tame the savages of Africa probably read the Sermon on the Mount before boarding a British or French ship. A lot of good that did.

My point is this. The history of ideas is a poor guide to understanding how someone like Reza Jorjani crops up. Or Ricardo Duchesne, the former PEN-L subscriber and tenured sociologist who started off as a critic of Robert Brenner just like Vivek Chibber and now is a leader of the Canadian alt-right.

It is a waste of time to blame Nietzsche for Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx for Stalin. Ideologues are reacting to pressures generated by the two main classes in society. In a time of crisis, such as has existed since the early 1970s, they are like the leaves on a tree fluttering as the winds of an approaching major storm. Some are blown to the right, others to the left. Our worry should be less with the ideologues than how to make a connection with the social class that can finally put ethics on a material basis, namely an end to the class system that generates greed, racism, homophobia, nativism and other forms of barbaric behavior. But to put an end to barbarism, it is necessary to transform the social system that feeds it. That is the task facing humanity as it hurdles toward oblivion.

March 10, 2017

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2017

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 2:20 pm

Monday, March 13th is opening night for the Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York, an annual event I have been covering since 2014. Featuring both narrative and documentary films, it is the quintessential alternative to the sort of escapism embodied in Hollywood blockbuster films and especially relevant in the current period, when the president of the United States is mounting an assault on the humane and progressive values expressed in the festival’s offerings. As you will see, the three films I have had a chance to preview amount to a rebuttal of the racist, xenophobic, corporatist and warmongering Trump administration.

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs

This is a documentary about Eugene V. Debs made by Yale Strom, whose earlier work I first came across fourteen years ago. This was a witty and wise film titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” that told the story of Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomist republic of the USSR.

Like that film, “American Socialist” is a vastly entertaining and politically insightful look at what might appear to be another somewhat Utopian experiment, namely the overthrow of American capitalism under the leadership of the most charismatic socialist politician in American history whose name and reputation cropped up in the 2016 primaries during his admirer Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Indeed, Sanders directed his own much more modest 28-minute Debs documentary in 1979 that was made before he became a Democrat. While nobody could doubt that Sanders was preferable to Clinton or Trump, Debs was very clear about the two capitalist parties in a 1904 campaign speech: “The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.”

Although I am familiar with Debs’s speeches, I knew very little about his life and career, which “American Socialist” provides in detail. We learn that his parents were a major influence on him politically. His father used to read French social protest novels to him as a youngster. The young Debs was especially fond of “Les Miserables”.

As is the case with most people who become socialists, Debs did not spring out of his mother’s womb with fully developed ideas about class conflict. Indeed, as a young man with a sympathy for the working class, he still mistakenly took the side of the railroad bosses in the epochal strike of 1877 when he was 22 years old.

Becoming more familiar with the one-sided war on labor as he grew older, especially by the railroad bosses, Debs became a co-founder of the American Railway Union in 1893, one of the first industrial unions in the USA. A year later, the union led a strike against Pullman, the sleeping car manufacturer whose workers lived in Pullman, Illinois—a hyper-exploitative company town founded by someone shameless enough to name it after himself. When George Pullman decided to maintain the price of rent after he had lowered the wages of 4,000 workers, they went out on strike. The strike took on political dimensions as the government falsely claimed that it impeded the delivery of mail and had to be crushed. In a way, it was the airline controllers strike of its day but on a much higher level. 80 workers were killed in confrontations with the police and army.

Using the technique pioneered by Ken Burns but with much more political acumen, Yale Strom draws upon photos of the battling Pullman strikers that really capture the intensity of the struggle. As a popular leader of the strikers, Debs was well on his way to becoming the tribune of the entire working class.

Drawing upon interviews with leftwing labor historians, including Nick Salvatore—the author of a Debs biography, Strom documents the remarkable geographical reach of both the IWW and the Socialist Party that Debs helped build. Debs was a contributor to “Appeal to Reason”, a socialist magazine that had a circulation of over a half-million at its height. The magazine’s offices were in Girard, Kansas, a place we would now associate with Trump voters. Indeed, the IWW and the SP reached the most oppressed members of the working class (fruit pickers, longshoremen, miners, lumberjacks) in the boondocks. Oklahoma, a state most liberals would consider particularly retrograde, was fertile territory for the radical left at the turn of the 20th century.

Debs had an affinity for ordinary workers, who listened spellbound to his speeches even when they didn’t understand many of the words. We see a photo of Debs leaning forward characteristically from a platform speaking to adoring Polish factory workers with only a smattering of English.

My own grandfather, who I was named after, was chairman of the Socialist Party in my home town as well as head of the Workman’s Circle, a leftist benevolent society for Jewish workers. At the time, socialism was a massively popular movement as indicated by the six percent vote Debs received in the 1912 election.

While the exact social and economic conditions that led to the popularity of the Socialist Party cannot be repeated in an epoch of financialization and runaway shops, the sense of unfairness that led to such a massive Debs vote exists today. If Debs was up on a cloud in socialist heaven, I am sure he would be gladdened by the sight of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters, whose activists are seen marching down the streets in Strom’s film. History does not repeat itself but we are certainly moving toward a showdown with the beast that Debs spoke against in a 1900 speech after the fashion of a biblical prophet:

The working class must get rid of the whole brood of masters and exploiters, and put themselves in possession and control of the means of production, that they may have steady employment without consulting a capitalist employer, large or small, and that they may get the wealth their labor produces, all of it, and enjoy with their families the fruits of their industry in comfortable and happy homes, abundant and wholesome food, proper clothing and all other things necessary to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is therefore a question not of “reform,’ the mask of fraud, but of revolution. The capitalist system must be overthrown, class-rule abolished and wage-slavery supplanted by the coöperative industry.


If Eugene V. Debs is the model for the kind of political movement against Trumpism we need today, this documentary about a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon is the perfect squelch of his racist attacks on immigrants fleeing state terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.

This film deserves the widest distribution and I hope that its screening at SR 2017 will help catapult it into other venues like nation-wide theatrical distribution. Director Lucas Jedrzejak, a man of Polish descent now living in Great Britain, puts a spotlight on the valiant efforts of Lebanese businessman and landowner Ali Tafesh who created a refugee camp in Ketermaya that was home to more Syrian refugees in 2015 than the entire USA—and that was when a Nobel Peace Prize winner was in the White House not a screaming Islamophobe.

Jedrzejak’s film focuses on the camp’s children, many of whom are orphans. Despite the hardships of living in Spartan conditions, the occupants of what can be described as huts are intent on living as much of a normal life as possible. Wise beyond their years, the childrens’ life revolves around playing in a makeshift playground and going to a one-room schoolhouse. One of the teachers is a star in the film, a 13-year old hijab-wearing girl named Nijmeh who should go on speaking tour of the USA about Syrian refugee realities. She is deeply aware of her responsibility to teach the ABC’s to children half her age as well as to keep their morale up. We see her leading a group of them in what looks a bit like ring-around-the-rosie that they delight in. When we learn that most of them have been exposed to aerial bombardment from Assad and his Russian gangster confederates, we can understand that they are glad to be alive even if they lack videogames and large-screen TVs.

For most of them, the deepest hope is to return to Syria—not to go to Europe or the USA. They are mature enough to understand that this is impossible under Bashar al-Assad who has destroyed their lives and those of millions of their countrymen. They long for normalcy, a chance to be among fellow Syrians in their homeland where they can play, go to school and enjoy family celebrations. It is one of the great crimes of the 21st century that their lives have been turned upside down in a war on ordinary people fraudulently called a war on terrorism.

Lucas Jedrzejak’s film is both inspiring and politically necessary in a time of growing demonization of Muslim peoples. If the USA is not quite ready to accept a fascist dictatorship, you can certainly say that people like Steve Bannon have found a scapegoat to put at the would-be fascist’s disposal. Like the Jews of the 1930s, the people of Ketermaya are desperately in need of solidarity. “Ketermaya” is an important statement on their behalf as well as millions of others fleeing persecution.

The Toxic Circle

Watch trailer here

Just over a year ago, I offered an analysis of Donald Trump that differed from many on the left who compared him to Hitler or Mussolini. I thought that the more apt comparison was with Silvio Berlusconi, the demagogic authoritarian but democratically elected Prime Minister of Italy during whose 12 years of rule the laws were bent in favor of the rich. Everything took place through “free elections” even though the Italian one-percent could rely on the mafia, the cops, the courts and the elected officials of Berlusconi’s Forza Italian party to circumvent the law.

This is what happened in Campania, a region in Southwest Italy, just above the boot. Directed by Wilfried Koomen, who is based in the Netherlands, “The Toxic Circle” is an examination of toxic dumping in the countryside of Campania that has become the Naples mafia’s biggest cash cow, even more than the drug trade. Known as the Camorra, the gangsters run trucking companies that dump chemical waste generated in Italy and the rest of Europe into the waters, roadside, hills and fields of Campania. To escape detection, large trucks offload the waste into smaller panel trucks that burn their contents after dark to escape detection.

When LBJ was president, his wife Lady Bird went on a campaign to persuade Americans to avoid throwing their garbage out of car windows when traveling on the highways as part of a beautification campaign. As ugly as the sight of garbage strewn alongside Campania’s highways is, the real damage is medical not esthetic. The toxic dumping of heavy metals and other carcinogens has led to a cancer epidemic in the countryside that is dramatized by the story of one woman in the film whose baby developed leukemia a couple of months after his birth and who died just before his second birthday. When visiting him in the children’s ward, she was shocked to discover that several other women who lived nearby were visiting for the same reason. Considering the extreme rarity of the illness, this epidemic had to be investigated.

When the mothers made their case to the government, the Minister of Health who belonged to Berlusconi’s party, denied any connection between toxic dumping and the illnesses their children and other Campania residents were suffering and blamed them for indulging in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking. The mother bitterly comments that her son had never smoked a single cigarette in his entire life.

In early February, Congress repealed the Stream Protection Act that restricts coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams and waterways. One imagines that many miners or ex-miners considering West Virginia and Kentucky’s depressed state voted for Trump because he promised to make coal great again. You can be assured that jobs in the labor-intensive pit mines will not be restored. Instead, mountaintop removal will continue unabated and that the coal companies will be at liberty to dump the toxic waste into local waters, thus ratcheting up the cancer rate. This might not be fascism, but it is certainly class dictatorship under the façade of democracy.

This film and every other film on the Socially Relevant Film Festival schedule will help arm us politically for the struggles we will surely carry out over the next four years, and for that matter over the decades to come as American big business continues to treat us as its subjects rather than as citizens in a democracy. As I have stated on many occasions, filmmakers such as those whose work can be seen at this film festival are a key part of the emerging vanguard of the coming American revolution. Don’t miss a chance to see them in action.

March 9, 2017


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:29 pm

Opening today at the Museum of Modern Art for a one-week run is “Uncertain”, a documentary that derives its title from the hamlet (population 94) of the same name in Texas close to the border with Louisiana. The film begins with its characteristic dry humor pointing to signs posted for the “Uncertain Police Department”, etc. Uncertain’s chief of police notes that it has always been a magnet for people fleeing from the law in Louisiana. Just one step across state lines and you are home free.

There are three subjects in the film who typify its marginal existence, evoked by the name of the place they call home. One is a heavily tattooed, diabetic and alcoholic young man who feels trapped in Uncertain, especially with its lack of a single unmarried woman. Early on we see him at a Karaoke bar singing a Beatles song terribly off-key. The second is a former heroin addict and American Indian who has cleaned up his life and found himself in Uncertain. He spends almost every leisure hour trying to kill a giant boar that has staked out territory in the woods near Uncertain. The beast has become his Moby Dick. The third is a 74-year old African-American who loves to fish in the nearby lake that is suffering from an overgrowth of vegetation that will kill the fish and bring an end to the tourist trade, one of the few sources of income. He has spent years in prison as a young man for shooting someone in the face during a senseless squabble.

The contrast between MOMA, a flagship of the liberal bourgeoisie, and the film’s subjects could not be sharper. In less capable hands, the film could have smacked of Hillary Clinton’s attitudinizing about “deplorables” but co-directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands obviously have a real affection for the three men and allow their humanity to shine through. The American Indian visits the grave of a young African-American who he killed in an auto accident while DWI, while the old African-American reflects on the approach of death that will reunite him with his wife who is in heaven. He only hopes that he won’t end up in hell since admits being bad to the bone when young.

Since I grew up in a tiny village in the countryside (population 300 or so), I have an affinity for films like this. If you are in NYC, you might want to check “Uncertain” out at the MOMA. It will be available as VOD afterwards and worth looking for on iTunes and the other VOD sources. I would also recommend “Vernon, Florida”, an Errol Morris film that is a bit more patronizing and “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” that has the same combination of small town eccentrics and a dying body of water.  It can be seen for a mere $2.99 and is tons of fun.


March 8, 2017

I Called Him Morgan

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Opening in NYC on March 24th and in Los Angeles a week later, “I Called Him Morgan” is the greatest film about a jazz musician I have seen. Although it is a documentary, it puts to shame narrative films that have fallen flat such as Don Cheadle’s on Miles Davis. Even if you are not a jazz fan, this is a compelling and informative work that might even motivate you to buy Lee Morgan CD’s. The film benefits from an almost nonstop score made up of his performances that are a reminder of how much of a loss his death at 33 years was. Combined with some amazing still photos of Lee Morgan and his contemporaries, this is a feast for both the ears and the eyes.

Not only is this a chronicle of one of the great trumpet players of the 50s to the early 70s, it is also a love story about Morgan and Helen, the woman who loved him. On February 19, 1972, when Morgan was playing at Slug’s on the lower east side, a club I used to haunt in the mid-60s when I was living in NYC, Helen Morgan came there to confront her husband. He had been spending far too much time with a younger woman who was in the club that night. In an altercation involving the three, Helen was evicted from the premises into the snowy night. She stormed back into the club and fired two bullets into her husband’s chest. The blizzard, which had left more than a foot of snow at that point, kept an ambulance from arriving for more than a hour. He died in the hospital. I could not help but think of the pop tune written in 1912:

Johnny saw Frankie a-comin’, Out the back door he did scoot
But Frankie took aim with her pistol, And the gun went roota-toot-toot
He was her man but he done her wrong

In an introduction to his new class in an adult education program in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1996, Larry Reni Thomas began by referring to his past gig as a jazz DJ. Later on one of the students, an elderly woman who he considered very street-smart but without a formal education, mentioned to him that her husband had been a jazz musician. When Thomas found out that it was Lee Morgan, he invited her to sit down for an interview. The audio tape of that interview forms an important strand in the narrative of “I Called Him Morgan”, including the film’s title. Helen Morgan didn’t care for the name Lee, preferring to call him Morgan.

Lee Morgan was a leading member of what has been referred to as “hard bop” movement that emerged in the mid-50s. Trumpet players like Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard were strongly influenced by Clifford Brown who died tragically in an auto accident on his way to a gig on June 25, 1956 at the age of 25. Born in 1938, Morgan was Clifford Brown’s student in Philadelphia and an acknowledged prodigy who joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at the age of 18.

After Dizzy’s band folded, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958, a group that was considered the foremost exponent of the hard bop style. That year they recorded “Moanin’”, a tune that is considered one of the great jazz anthems of all time. It epitomized the synthesis of bebop chord changes and traditional “soul” music in the Black community found in the blues, gospel music and r&b. Listen to it here to get an idea of what jazz sounded like in its glory days:

You can see the band performing this number in “I Called Him Morgan” as well as many other classic performances on the Steve Allen Show and other vintage television shows before TV became corrupted with formulaic pop music.

Side by side, as we learn about Morgan’s musical evolution, we get Helen Morgan’s story, an all too familiar tale of racial and gender oppression in the Deep South. She had her first child at the age of 13 and another a year later. In her late teens, she married a man who would die a couple of years into their marriage. Soon afterwards she moved to NYC where she was welcomed by her late husband’s relatives and into a hip, urban environment. As she tells Larry Reni Thomas early on, she hated the country and doing chores on her father’s farm.

In no time at all, she became celebrated by jazz musicians for her quick wit, feistiness, sex appeal and opening her apartment up to the community as a kind of salon where they could always count on a fabulous meal and each other’s company. To pay the rent and other expenses, Helen Morgan worked for an answering service by day, a job more easily available to Black women.

One day, she ran into Lee Morgan at one of her get-togethers and figured out immediately that he was strung out on heroin. Since it was a cold winter’s day, she asked him where his coat was. His answer: the pawn shop. She took his arm in hers and went to the pawn shop to get his coat out of hock. This was the beginning of a May-November romance (she was 13 years older) that gave her great happiness and him a second chance on a career after she nursed him back to health and kept him on the straight and narrow. The tragic ending to this marriage was not inevitable but as is so often the case, murders are the result of domestic quarrels that get out of hand. With the easy availability of handguns (Lee had bought one for her Helen for her own protection), it is no wonder that such killings take place routinely—but usually it is the woman who dies.

Among the breakthroughs in this film made by Swedish director Kasper Collin, whose last documentary was on Albert Ayler, is the assembling of interviewees who had played alongside Lee Morgan, including Wayne Shorter, “Tootie” Heath, Larry Ridley, Charlie Persip and others. Now mostly in their 70s, they are knowledgeable about Lee Morgan as a person and a musician. Shorter comes across as true savant of this world and a musician whose biography (much more of an “as-told-to” memoir) is going on my must-read list for 2017.

I urge you to put this film on your must-see list for 2017. “I Called Him Morgan” opens on Friday, March 24 at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center andt will be followed on Friday, March 31 at NYC’s Metrograph Theater and the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles with a national expansion to follow.

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