Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2017

Did the Kaiser fund the Bolsheviks?

Filed under: ussr — louisproyect @ 8:18 pm

The short answer: no, he did not

Last Sunday the NY Times Book Review had something on Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train that I doubt could add anything to Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”, especially since the last paragraph contained this well-worn verdict: “It was Lenin who instituted severe censorship, established one-party rule and resorted to terror against his political enemies.”

But what really caught my eye was something else. Merridale’s book supposedly provided evidence that:

Lenin, moreover, had accepted the kaiser’s money — “German gold” — to help finance Bolshevik propaganda and amplify his strident appeals against the provisional government and anyone, Bolshevik or otherwise, who thought of cooperating with it.

That was in the back of my mind when I spotted her book being reviewed by Sophie Pinkham in the latest Nation Magazine, along with two other books about the Russian Revolution (neither of which was written by China Mieville—no surprise there). It too referred to German gold but from another author under review, Sean McMeekin, who wrote “The Russian Revolution: A New History”. He is utterly dismissive of the Bolsheviks and says that without German gold, they’d be a footnote in history:

Dismissing him as “out-of-touch,” McMeekin argues that Lenin would have had “little impact on the political scene had he not been furnished with German funds to propagandize the Russian army.” Lenin and the Bolsheviks, he adds, “played no role worth mentioning in the fall of the tsar.”

Now, nobody can deny that the Germans helped Lenin enter Russia obviously intending to weaken the Czarist war drive—thank god. But what about the German gold? Was there any merit to that? I could not see myself bothering to take Merridale or McMeekin’s books out of the Columbia Library, let alone wasting good money on them but I was curious to see what the evidence was. It would seem that everything you needed to know about this could be retrieved from Google books entry on Lenin on the Train:

There can be no doubt that Germany was pouring money into Russia. In just one instance, on 3 April 1917, the German foreign ministry approved a grant of five million marks for propaganda purposes, much of which probably passed to Parvus (who always refused to sign receipts). While Lenin’s cheap seat on the sealed train had been a gamble on the part of a small group in Germany’s civilian government, other departments and agencies had budgets of their own. The military might have been counting on its submarines to throttle and defeat the enemy, but it still ran a lavish propaganda campaign on the eastern front throughout 1917. As the British War Cabinet noted in April, “German agitators and German money would seem to be having much to do with the unrest in Russia.” The idea of a ‘vast spying organisation’ was fanciful, but with large piles of foreign notes in circulation, many of them forged, it was a challenge to work out who was bankrolling whom.

Exactly how that cash flowed east remains a matter for speculation. It is entirely reasonable to suppose that some of Parvus’ German millions reached Lenin’s fighting fund. It is possible that the big man used his research group in Denmark to channel money to the Bolsheviks, a course he could have sorted out with Radek at their secret meeting in April. Some researchers have named the likely handler as a confidential agent called Vladislav Shatsenstein. The other route for moving cash may have been through Stockholm. The most convenient intermediary would have been the firm that Fiirstenberg managed for Parvus and his German friend Georg Sklarz, which ploughed some of its profits back into trading but may have used the rest for political operations in Russia. The file is open, although many of the documents have disappeared. What is beyond doubt is that Lenin accepted 2,000 rubles from Fiirstenberg in April 1917 when he was planning his journey to Russia, and he took 800 more for Zinoviev. He did not balk at that variety of German gold. For those who still refuse to credit that the greatest socialist on earth could ever lie about a wad of German notes, the alternative is to concede that he subsidized himself with profits from the war’s black-market trade in lead Pencils and condoms (with teat end).

Note carefully the words that Merridale uses to make her case: “probably passed”, “German money would seem”, “remains a matter for speculation”, “the likely handler”, “would have been the firm”, “may have used the rest”.

In other words, everything is conjecture except for this: Lenin supposedly accepted 2,800 rubles from a man who worked for Parvus. To give you an idea of how much money that was in 1917, a NY Times article from September 27, 1917 reported that laborers unloading wood from barges in Petrograd were making 43 rubles a day so that the “German gold” amounted to one week’s pay for ten manual laborers. And that supposedly was the factor that allowed the Bolsheviks to take over? You got to be fucking kidding me.

The story of German gold is a very old one. In fact Leon Trotsky devoted the entire chapter 27 to it in The History of the Russian Revolution, most of it focused on the aforementioned Parvus who was born Israel Lazarevich Gelfand to a Jewish family in Belarus in 1867. He also happened to be the Marxist who conceived of permanent revolution before Trotsky and became his tutor.

Parvus was something of a hustler, with some of Donald Trump’s genes apparently. He produced Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths but walked off with the play’s proceeds amounting to 130,000 German gold marks, a lot more than what the Bolsheviks ever got.

His next shady deal was becoming an arms trader in Istanbul, which helped him become wealthy during the Balkans War. While he was in Turkey, he met with and became friends with the German ambassador. Parvus developed the idea that if Germany funded the Bolsheviks, it could help to usher in the socialist revolution. Obviously seeing himself as a middle-man in the operation, he hoped to do well by doing good—at least that must be what he told himself. Wikipedia doubts that these plans ever materialized:

Some accuse Parvus of having funded Lenin while in Switzerland. Historians, however, are skeptical. A biography of Parvus by the authors Scharlau and Zeman have concluded that there was no cooperation between the two. It declared that “Lenin refused the German offer of aid.” Parvus’s bank account shows that he only paid out a total of 25,600 francs in the period between his arrival in Switzerland in May 1915 and the February Revolution of 1917. Parvus did little in Switzerland, historians conclude. Austrian intelligence through Parvus gave money to Russian emigre newspapers in Paris. But when the sources of this funding became clear in the beginning of 1915 and more widely understood—Lenin and the emigres in Paris rejected such support. Harold Shukman has concluded, “Funds were plainly not flowing into Lenin’s hands.”

The paragraph above links to a JSTOR article titled “The Myth of German Money during the First World War” by the late U. of Wisconsin history professor Alfred Erich Senn for the January 1976 Soviet Studies. He would seem to be up to snuff as a scholar with 8 books and 168 JSTOR articles under his belt.

The article dismantles all the “German gold” claims, especially the idea that Lenin had any use for Parvus:

Parvus is probably the best known, and his relationship with Lenin  seems clear. Scharlau and Zeman have produced an interesting  biography, and have concluded that there was indeed no cooperation  between the two. It is clear, they declared, that ‘Lenin refused the German offer of aid’. Myths, however, die hard, and other writers,  while admitting that the evidence shows no agreement between Parvus  and Lenin, nevertheless go on to draw contrary conclusions.

(Drop me a line at lnp3@panix.com if you’d like to read a copy.)

But better yet, you can read Trotsky on this for free, plus he was directly involved in all this:

However, when people seek long, especially if they are armed with power, they find something in the end. A certain Z. Burstein, a merchant by official calling, opened the eyes of the Provisional Government to a “German espionage organization in Stockholm, headed by Parvus,” – a well-known German social democrat of Russian origin. According to the testimony of Burstein, Lenin was in contact with this organization through the Polish revolutionists, Ganetsky and Kozlovsky. Kerensky wrote later: “Some extraordinarily serious data – unfortunately not of a legal, but merely of a secret police character – were to receive absolutely unquestionable confirmation with the arrival in Russia of Ganetsky, who had been arrested on the border, and were to be converted into authentic juridical material against the Bolshevik staff.” Kerensky knew in advance into what this material would be converted!

The testimony of the merchant, Burstein, concerned the trade operations of Ganetsky and Kozlovsky between Petrograd and Stockholm. This wartime commerce, which evidently had recourse at times to a code correspondence, had no relation to politics. The Bolshevik party had no relation to this commerce. Lenin and Trotsky had publicly denounced Parvus, who combined good commerce with bad politics, and in printed words had appealed to the Russian revolutionists to break off all relations with him. But who was there in the whirlpool of events who had time to look into all this? An espionage organization in Stockholm – that sounded plain enough. And so the light unsuccessfully ignited by the hand of ensign Ermolenko, flared up from another direction. To be sure, here too they ran into a difficulty. The head of the Intelligence Service of the general staff, Prince Turkestanov, to the query of an investigator into the especially important affair of Alexandrov, had answered, “Z. Burstein is a person not deserving the slightest confidence. Burstein is an unscrupulous type of business man, who will not stop at any kind of undertaking.” But could Burstein’s bad reputation stand in the way of an attempt to besmirch the reputation of Lenin? No, Kerensky did not hesitate to recognize the testimony of Burstein as “extraordinarily serious.” Henceforth the investigation was off on the Stockholm scent. The exposures of a spy who had been in the service of two general staffs, and an unscrupulous business man, “not deserving the slightest confidence,” lay at the foundation of that utterly fantastic accusation against a revolutionary party which a nation of 160 million were about to raise to the supreme power.

Ironically or maybe not so ironically, the myth of German gold is being floated now a hundred years after the Russian Revolution and for the exact same reason: to discredit movements for revolutionary change.

Merridale is not a serious scholar. She writes for a popular audience that likely would find her smears of Lenin comforting. Maybe she might send Vladimir Putin an autographed copy in light of his statement that Lenin “planted an atomic bomb under the structure called Russia, and it then exploded.”

As far as Nation Magazine reviewer Sophie Pinkham is concerned, she would seem to be far more open to the idea that the Russian Revolution was a good thing, especially since the magazine had a long-time affinity for the USSR even if it was at times tainted by Stalinism. Why would she be so credulous as to take McMeekin’s business about German gold at its word without doing a bit of fact-checking?

As it happens, Pinkham writes for n+1, a fine Marxist journal I agree with 90 percent of the time. She is also the author of Black Square, a book about “adventures in post-Soviet Ukraine” that appears to be rather shallow if you take the NY Times review at its word: “A glibness, too, can crop up. Pinkham dispenses with the natural-gas wars that have dominated Russo-Ukrainian relations in the post-Soviet era in a half-paragraph — and, within it, glosses the Holodomor, the murder of untold millions of Ukrainians during the collectivization of the 1930s.” A half-paragraph? What the fuck?

I imagine that Pinkham, like Merridale, writes to make a living. Black Square is not interested in Ukrainian history but her story as a feminist who worked for George Soros and then went to Ukraine on an adventure. God bless her. I don’t mind her making a living writing travel books or even concluding her article with the claim that October 1917 represented the “dangerous magnetism of power and violence.” What I would urge her to do in the future is to take fifteen minutes to make sure that she wasn’t spreading Kerensky’s lies 100 years after the fact.

Finally, on the question of the Germans putting Lenin on a sealed train for the obvious intention of helping to end Russian participation in WWI. Edmund Wilson wrote that this did not sit well with his comrades:

In the train that left the morning of April 8 there were thirty Russian exiles, including not a single Menshevik. They were accompanied by the Swiss socialist Platten, who made himself responsible for the trip, and the Polish socialist Radek. Some of the best of the comrades had been horrified by the indiscretion of Lenin in resorting to the aid of the Germans and making the trip through an enemy country. They came to the station and besieged the travelers, begging them not to go. Lenin got into the train without replying a word.

Was there a question of principle involved in using the German state in this fashion? Was it much different than accepting German gold? These are the sorts of questions revolutionaries are forced to confront in today’s geopolitical divide. For example, in 2011 Syrians who wanted to defend their friends and neighbors from being killed by Baathist snipers had to choose between the “principled” tactic of only using weapons seized from Baathist armories or from accepting them from “the bad guys” as Donald Trump might have put it. Does using an automatic rifle sent by Saudi Arabia ipso facto make you a tool of American imperialism and its proxies? This is an easy question to answer from people like Mike Whitney or Andre Vltchek, who have as much of an understanding of Marxist politics as I do of particle physics. But what about people like John Rees and Tariq Ali, who were educated in Trotskyist politics that even with its flaws represented classical Marxism?

I always come back to Trotsky’s “Learn to Think”, which is a lucid guide to handling what Mao might have called multiple contradictions:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

June 16, 2017

The Perils of Sectarianism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Islam,middle east — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

Throughout the Middle East, sectarianism is a problem that has existed for decades but more recently has reached catastrophic dimensions with ISIS declaring just about ever religious rival as a takfiri. This has led to stoning, beheadings, the rape of Yazidi women and an iron enforcement of sharia law that makes every person living under its sway worried about becoming the next victim of its religious enforcers.

While ISIS was a virulent strain of sectarianism from its outset, you also see a level of brutal and relentless warfare between the majoritarian Sunni sect and its rivals in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere unknown in the past, no matter how sharp the differences over who inherited Mohammad’s mantle of authority. For people who have more than the usual interest in Syrian politics, the problem of sectarianism is particularly acute since the early days of the revolution were largely devoid of such conflicts.

Addressing the need for serious scholarship on the origins of these seemingly intractable fissures, Nader Ashemi and Danny Postel have put together a collection of articles by experts in the field that is must reading for both those within the academy and those working for the cause of peace in the Middle East. Ashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Postel is the Center’s Assistant Director. I have been in contact with the two authors over the past six years and have had a high regard for their scholarly integrity and even more so after reading their Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

Continue reading

June 14, 2017

Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

“Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is now the fourth full-length documentary I have seen on Syria and the one I now regard as the best introduction to the conflict. Unlike “Return to Homs”, “City of Ghosts” and “Last Men in Aleppo” that were directed by Syrian partisans of the revolution, “Hell on Earth” is co-directed by Sebastian Junger, an American, and Nick Quested, a Briton, whose emphasis is primarily on the humanitarian disaster but within the context of a powerful attack on the Baathist dictatorship. They made the wise choice of drawing on analysis from Robin Yassin-Kassab who offers a running commentary in the film on how Assad used extreme violence and sectarianism to help subdue a popular movement. Yassin-Kassab co-wrote “Burning Country” with Leila al-Sham, a book that is the film’s counterpart. If I were asked by someone trying to puzzle out the six year war in Syria, I would recommend both “Burning Country” and “Hell on Earth”, a film that is now available as VOD (sources at the end of the review.)

The film provides extensive evidence of the mass character of the protest movement in Syria that began in March 2011, with a close look at the victimization of 15 teenage boys who were arrested after painting graffiti on the walls of Daraa, a city widely viewed as the birthplace of the revolution: “As-Shaab / Yoreed / Eskaat el nizam!”, which means “The people / want / to topple the regime!” One of the youths walks through the streets of Daraa showing where they had used spray paint to demand Assad’s fall. He, like the others, had been tortured in jail for a month and then released to his parents who were part of the Sunni tribal network that was the sinew of Daraa. Their suffering, including having their fingernails torn out, incensed their parents and most of the city’s residents who began to protest in the streets raising the central demands of the movement: for justice, for dignity and for freedom. As could have been expected, Assad’s snipers began firing on the demonstrations, footage of which is included in the film.

This pattern was repeated across Syria–in Homs, in Aleppo, in Hama and in the suburbs of Damascus. Continued armed attacks on peaceful protests finally reached the breaking point when soldiers began to defect and form militias to defend the people both in the streets and in their homes. We hear from a number of the men who helped to form the FSA in 2011, an armed movement that had no political agenda except to “topple the regime” as the 15 boys from Daraa had hoped.

Within two years, the regime had adopted genocidal-like tactics including barrel bombing and other forms of aerial attacks against which the rebels had no defense. Syria was rapidly becoming a hell on earth, as Yassin-Kassab put it at one point in the film, hence its apt title.

In August 2013, the dictatorship used sarin gas against the people of East Ghouta, a Damascus suburb composed mostly of the Sunni working poor, many of whom were formerly small farmers driven to leave drought-stricken land when government support dried up as well. The film takes a close look at Obama’s failure to take action against Assad despite his “red flag” warnings. While it is reasonable to assume that Junger and Quested would have agreed with John McCann and Dennis Ross, who are among the film’s imperialist-minded enemies of Assad, that Obama betrayed the Syrians by not following through with a military intervention, there was likely little chance of this happening. By this point, Obama was well on his way to developing rapprochement with Iran and the last thing he needed was to deploy American power on behalf of the “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists” he derided. All that was really needed was to remove the CIA agents from the Syrian border who had been stationed there to prevent the shipment of MANPAD’s from Libya to the rebels who needed them desperately. I am sure that a pharmacist with sufficient training could have put a Russian-made SA-7 to good use taking down the helicopters that were dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and everything that moved in places like East Aleppo.

What sets “Hell on Earth” apart from the standard Frontline type documentary on PBS is the inclusion of two brothers and their families who had fled East Aleppo to get away from the constant onslaught of Syrian and Russian aerial bombardment. Radwan and Marwan Mohammed were given video cameras by Junger and Quested so they could describe what it was like to be part of the half of the Syrian population that had been displaced from their homes. Crowded into what looks like a concrete shed, they are caught in limbo since they are now in ISIS territory. Like the Syrian refugees in “Lost in Lebanon”, they are motivated primarily by the need to survive rather than to take part in an armed struggle. (The film explicitly refers to the war as a necessary step taken by Assad to preempt the possibility for peaceful reforms.)

The two brothers are probably like most Syrians today, people longing for peace and normalcy. In choosing to impose the law of the jungle on a preeminently civilized and peaceful society, Assad has nearly won but at what price? He has carried out what Tacitus once described: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The second half of the film deals with the rise of ISIS and is exceptionally good. It is the first attempt I have seen to describe the origins of the death cult in terms of the persecution of Sunnis in Iraq. “Hell on Earth” comes pretty close to the version of events presented in Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s book on ISIS.

If the beheadings carried out by ISIS in the Middle East and the knife attacks by its supporters in Europe lend themselves to hysterical news reports in the West, the film reminds us that torture and ghastly executions took place in civilized England as well. If you were convicted of treason in 13th century England, punishment took the form of hanging (almost to the point of death), emasculation, disembowelment, beheading and being chopped into four pieces. The remains of the body were often displayed on London Bridge. Maybe that’s where the ISIS supporters got the idea for stabbing people at random on the same bridge.

Drawing upon ISIS’s own recruitment videos, “Hell on Earth” makes it clear that the message is much more evocative of video games and Hollywood action movies than Wahhabist theology. In fact, even though the film does not specifically state this, you can only conclude that the jihadists must have studied the recruitment commercials for the Marines that crop up during football games. For an 18 year old man, testosterone speaks much louder than longings for a Caliphate.

Director Sebastian Junger is a capable writer as well as a filmmaker. “The Perfect Storm”, his book about swordfish fishermen killed in a freak gale, was a best-seller and made into a very good film starring George Clooney. He also directed “Restrepo”, a documentary about the futility of the American intervention in Afghanistan, where “isolationist” Donald Trump has provided a blank check to the military to increase its numbers.

To watch “Hell on Earth”, there are various options. If you have basic cable, go to the National Geographic website and play “full episode”. You will then be prompted to sign in to your cable provider, such as Verizon, and watch the film for free.

If you don’t have cable, you can now buy the film for $9.99 on iTunes or Youtube and for $11.99 on Amazon. ITunes states that the film will be available for rent on June 20th, which probably means $4.99. I assume that it will be rentable on Youtube and Amazon on that date as well. In any case, this is a film you should recommend to friends and co-workers who have not really been following events there for the past 6 years. While the film is not agitprop by any stretch of the imagination, you will be left with the conclusion that Assad, Putin and their allies in Iran and Hizbollah are carrying out the dirtiest war of the 21st Century. How things will eventually play out in Syria cannot be determined at this point but it is in the interests of peace and social justice for as many Americans to know the truth about Syria just as it was for us to know about the origins of the war in Vietnam just over a half-century ago. The days of the teach-in might be long gone but a film like “Hell on Earth” serves the same purpose: to educate people so they can take intelligent action.

 

June 13, 2017

Theodor Bergmann, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 12:23 pm

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Theodor Bergmann 1916-2017

I received word this morning that Theodor Bergmann has died, just a month before his 101st birthday.

I am sad to inform you that Theo has passed away.

Hinrich

13. Juni 2017
Mario Kessler / Redaktion Sozialismus
Die Stärksten kämpfen ein Leben lang: Theodor Bergmann (7.3.1916 – 12.6.2017)

http://www.sozialismus.de/nc/vorherige_hefte_archiv/kommentare_analysen/detail/artikel/die-staerksten-kaempfen-ein-leben-lang-theodor-bergmann-731916-1262017/

http://www.sozialismus.de/kommentare_analysen/

http://www.vsa-verlag.de/

http://www.vsa-verlag.de/nc/autorinnen/?tx_wtdirectory_pi1%5Bshow%5D=647&tx_rggooglemap_pi1%5Bpoi%5D=647

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Bergmann_(Agrarwissenschaftler)

I met Bergmann in New York, when he was in town to speak at the Brecht Forum (see below). He was the long-time editor of Sozialismus, a German magazine that published a couple of my articles in the early 90s. I have vivid memories of his recounting the divisions in the German left and his support for the right opposition in the CP. Back then, this meant being aligned with Bukharin, a Marxist whose ideas Bergmann defended in many venues, including a book titled Bukharin in Retrospect (Socialism and Social Movements) that was co-edited by Moshe Lewin, another heterodox Marxist I respect highly. The collection was the product of an international conference held in the autumn of 1988, around the time Nikolai Bukharin was officially rehabilitated during glasnost.

Theodor Bergmann speaks on Rosa Luxemburg

Last night I heard a lecture at the Brecht Forum in NYC on “Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian Revolution” by Theodor Bergmann, the co-editor of the journal Sozialismus. He was a member, along with Brandler and Thalheimer, of the German Communist Party Opposition during the Weimar Republic.. He has written a history of this organization and also has written a number of books on agrarian questions. His introduction to farming matters came about in a most unusual manner. He went into exile in Sweden after the rise of Hitler and became a farm laborer. Hence his interest in agrarian questions! The lecture was an analysis of an unfinished article by Rosa Luxemburg on the Russian revolution. Bergmann argued that many of Luxemburg’s criticisms of Bolshevik rule anticipated the subsequent rise of Stalinism and the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. What he was also anxious to make clear was that Luxemburg’s criticisms were offered in the context of support for the revolution and in solidarity with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself. Bergmann cites Leo Jogiches, a German Communist leader and close ally to Luxemburg, as having even more sympathy for the Bolshevik project than was indicated by this late article. If she had lived, there is little doubt that she would continued to deepen her understanding of the Soviet experiment and play a critical role in the fight against Stalin. Bergmann stated that Luxemburg resisted Kremlin control when the Communist Party of Germany was formed.

Now this was in the period that Trotsky was barking orders to the infant French Communist Party from his desk in the Comintern. It would have been interesting to see what Luxemburg would have told the Comintern brass around the time Zinoviev put through his “Bolshevization” measures at the 5th Congress.

This was the question I in fact put to him. I asked if there had ever been a critique of the “organization” question within the ranks of the German Communist Party Opposition. Since the Opposition was strongly influenced by Luxemburg’s ideas, wasn’t there resistance to the super-centralist model put forward by Zinoviev? He replied that indeed there was and that Thalheimer had written a lengthy criticism of the “Boshevization” turn. This is just the item I was looking for to complete my research on how Lenin’s free-wheeling Bolshevik party became turned into the grotesque “Marxist-Leninist” model adopted by Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyist alike.

Louis Proyect

June 12, 2017

An uncommon life in Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL)

Filed under: computers — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

In many ways, the best thing about the NY Times is the obituary since it amounts to a small-scale biography. If given a choice between a documentary and a narrative film, I generally lean toward the documentary because the real lives of people are far more interesting than what a screenwriter can think up. The same thing is true when it comes to a biography versus a novel. Why would I want to read something written by Jonathan Franzen when my time could be better spent on a biography of Ho Chi Minh or John Brown, just two that are sitting on my bookshelf right now?

On June 4th, the obituary for Jean Sammet appeared. Although I am pretty familiar with the lives of people who took part in the information revolution, I had never heard of her before. She was one of the six people who got together in 1959 to write the Common Business-Oriented Language, more familiarly known as COBOL. This was a language I used from 1970 until 1995 or so when I switched over to a Unix platform at Columbia University developing client-server systems in perl and java.

Jean Sammet, who brought computing into the business mainstream, at the University of Maryland in 1979 to deliver a lecture. Credit: Ben Shneiderman

From 1970 to 1978, I used my COBOL skills to facilitate moves from one city to another during my time as an SWP member. In those years, being a qualified COBOL programmer could usually land you a job within a week after moving to a new city. Furthermore, it enabled you to change jobs every 2 years or so with a 10 percent salary increase. And most importantly, it allowed you to exist in the corporate world without having to become part of the machine. Even after leaving the SWP, my computer skills continued to pay off, even at a place like Goldman-Sachs. The job served my ends just as much as it did my employer. This might have been obvious as indicated by a Newsday article about the Nicaragua solidarity movement in New York:

Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.

It was in another computer magazine that he learned of the shortage of computer programmers in Nicaragua, because so many of the skilled middle class were leaving:

“This neon sign kept on in my head: ‘Nicaragua Needs You.’ This was using skills I had always taken for granted.”

He went to conduct a two-week workshop in computer programing as part of TecNica, a national organization which in the last two years has sent to Nicaragua about 50 New Yorkers, mostly computer programmers, some engineers, and one typesetter, one medical lab technician, one boiler mechanic, one travel agent. “Most are not hot radicals,” Proyect says. “They’re people very much like Ben Linder, taken up with the idea of helping the poor.”

I would go so far as to say that maybe half the people who went on TecNica delegations had more in common with Jean Sammet than they had with me. Born in 1928, she graduated from Mount Holyoke with a mathematics degree. Enrolled as a math grad student at the U. of Illinois in 1949, she ran into her first computer that revolted her. She said, “I thought of a computer as some obscene piece of hardware that I wanted nothing to do with.”

It was only when she ran some punch cards through a computer that she was transformed. “To my utter astonishment. I loved it.”

This exactly how I reacted when I started off as a programmer trainee at Metropolitan Life in 1968 using a COBOL-like language developed in-house called English Language. When I discovered that testing software was like doing puzzles, I couldn’t believe I was going to get paid to have fun. Here in a nutshell is what a COBOL programmer does. The code has been simplified but not by much.

Open input employee_file.
Open output check_file.
01 employee_record.
03 Employee_ID  picture x(10).
03 First_Name  picture x(30).
03 Last_Name  picture x(30).
03 Wage_amount  picture 9(5)v99.
03 Hours_worked picture 999.
01 check_record.
03 Pay_to_first_name  picture x(30).
03 Pay_to_last_name  picture x(30).
03 check_amount  pic zzzzz.zz.

P1.
Read employee_file into employee_record at end go to End_job.
Move First_Name to Pay_to_first_name.
Move Last_Name to Pay_to_last_name.
Compute check_amout = Wage_amount * Hours_worked.
Write check_record.
Go to P1.

End_job.
Close employee_file.
Close check_file.
Now all of this might seem quite mundane. The program reads through a file, calculates the wage and then writes a check. Except the program would not work. Take a minute to see why. Done? It won’t work because I spelled “amout” rather than “amount” under P1. You might understand what I meant but not a computer!

American corporations have been running payroll applications like this since the 1960s but in a place like Nicaragua most businesses, many of which were owned by Somoza before 1979, did not have computers. Someone had to sit down with a calculator and do all of this manually, including the signature on the check. In the TecNica video, one volunteer recounts how the introduction of a modest computer cut the time for a state-owned enterprise dramatically. My time spent in Nicaragua convinced me that automation made socialism possible for the first time in human history, something that cybernetics expert Stafford Beer hoped would help transform Chile. It was only Nixon and Reagan’s intervention that showed how difficult it was to build socialism, even with the best of intentions by the government and having leading-edge technology at its disposal. A counter-revolutionary army supported by the most powerful capitalist nation in history was capable of stopping even the most determined movements for change.

The obit described the cultural environment for professional programmers in the early 50s:

In the early 1950s, the computer industry was in its infancy, with no settled culture or rigid career paths. Lois Haibt, a contemporary of Ms. Sammet’s at IBM, where Ms. Sammet worked for nearly three decades, observed, “They took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills — bridge players, chess players, even women.”

While by the time I entered the field it could no longer be described as in its “infancy”, it was nothing like today when most programmers have little interest except in making big money. Goldman-Sachs is now looking for computer science graduates who more likely than not have never read a single novel in their life except “Atlas Shrugged”. In 1970, computer science was barely getting off the ground. Most programmers I worked with back then were people who fell into it like me. With a liberal arts degree, it was very tempting to take a job as a programmer trainee that expected very little from you except to be competent in your trade (it could hardly be called a profession.)

When I went to work for the First National Bank of Boston in 1970, some of my co-workers had been affected by the student movement to some degree or another. There was a guy who had just graduated Dartmouth who had very poor work habits and spent most of the day talking about the Grateful Dead to anybody who listened. I sat next to a guy named Richard who worked there as a consultant. He was very knowledgeable about the arts and politics and someone I spent much of the day wasting time with chatting about socialism, 12-tone music and Godard films. Another consultant was a Harvard graduate who was about 5 years older than me and skeptical about radical politics to say the least. I dragged him once to see Camejo speak and he summed him up as “too febrile”. This was around the time I began to realize that not everybody was open to socialism.

I never met the guy at the bank who probably had more guts than me. There was a whiteboard in the cafeteria that was used for design sessions but someone had the brilliant idea to write something like this on it when nobody was looking: “The capitalist system is destroying the United States while it is killing countless Vietnamese peasants. Now is the time to demonstrate your opposition to such a monstrous system.” And beneath it in capital letters and underlined, you could read: “DO NOT ERASE”. People working for banks are so used to authority that the agitprop stood up until late in the morning when security guards got the okay from upper management to erase it.

From Boston I went down to Houston, Texas in 1973 and went to work for Texas Commerce Bank. I reported to Billy Penrod, a guy who looked and talked like a cowboy and who was a former Texas A&M running back from Gonzalez, Texas. Like most people in Gonzalez, Billy  was a racist. He once described Gonzalez as a sundown town, even though he didn’t use that term. He put it this way, “Colored people understood that they shouldn’t get caught in Gonzalez after dark.” Despite his retrograde views, I learned to admire Billy as the consummate systems analyst. We were developing a personal trust system that kept track of the estates owned by the oil millionaires. Billy was from Jean Sammet’s generation and got started out wiring IBM tab machines, used for accounting systems before there were computers. He got so good at managing them that he went to work as an IBM consultant implementing tab-machine based accounting systems around the country.

In 1975, I moved back to New York to work on automating the SWP headquarters, including the Militant newspaper and Pathfinder. This was the first time I began to suspect that I had joined a cult. The in-grown, zombie-like atmosphere at West Street made me feel ten times more alienated than I ever felt in a bank.

I went to work for Salomon Brothers during the day while doing West Street systems development by night. I didn’t stay long at Salomon but long enough to work with Michael Bloomberg who had me and a business analyst automating SBIL, their branch office in London. I rather liked Bloomberg even though he was an even bigger skunk than Billy. He was a sexist and racist pig who once yelled out “Look at the tits on that broad” when a Latina was delivering coffee on the trading floor.

When I got a mediocre review at Salomon, I went out and found another job in a week with ACI (Automated Concepts, Inc.), one of many “job shops” that hired programmers for very good salaries in the 1970s and 80s before they went to work for themselves as a contract programmer making even bigger money. One of my last jobs was as a self-employed contract programmer making $500 per day. This was in 1989 just when the job market was tightening up irrevocably and when those asshole libertarian smart-ass computer science majors were taking over.

ACI was a fun place to work. I got a big kick out of the CEO Fred Harris who was into EST, a self-improvement cult not nearly so bad as Scientology but pretty bad. Fred didn’t quite know what to make of me but he appreciated the fact that I had a rather “elevated” mind as well as being a crackerjack COBOL programmer. I have no idea whatever happened to ACI and Fred Harris but I used to dream about going up to their offices on 386 Park Avenue South getting my next assignment.

One of my last consulting assignments with ACI introduced me to Gabriel Manfugas, the son of a former Batista soldier who had fled to the USA in the early 60s. Gabriel and I became fast friends even though he had no use for my politics. We used to smoke pot, even during lunch, as we walked around mid-town. I got to know his friends, who were upwardly mobile Latinos from Washington Heights and programmers like him. By this time, programmers—including them—were computer science graduates but nobody could mistake them from the jerks I used to run into at Goldman-Sachs. Mostly, they were looking for angles to make them wealthy like starting their own consulting company. I was 20 years older than all of them, who saw me as a father figure—subversive politics and all. I enjoyed plenty of cocaine binges with them in the 1980s and have fond memories of all of them who are now in senior management positions at various corporations.

 

June 10, 2017

Moscow Never Sleeps; Night School

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:56 pm

Those who follow my reviews, especially those of narrative films, know that I am averse to hyperbole. So when I tell you that “Moscow Never Sleeps” is a masterpiece, you’d better damn believe it. Now playing at the Village East Cinema, it has a superficial resemblance to films like “Babel” or “Crash” in which the paths of total strangers keep intersecting with each other in overlapping narratives—by now a cliché. Although sharing this framework, “Moscow Never Sleeps” is far less about random twists of fate than it is about the fate of an entire society. Its characters, drawn from different class strata, are actors in a drama that is unfolding throughout a nation that has become a kind of bogeyman during the current political crisis in the White House. It has devolved upon Irish Director/Screenwriter Johnny O’Reilly to create a picture of Russian life that reflects both the humanity of the people as well as the demons that are eating away at the very fabric of their society.

A few nights ago O’Reilly projected the film’s title onto the façade of Trump Tower accompanied by a press release that declared his intentions:

All too often the actions of a government are conflated with the characteristics of a national people. That’s true of Putin’s Russia and also now of Trump’s America. The projection onto Trump Tower highlights a film which presents a more nuanced view of Russian people beyond the filter of geo-politics, highlights the erosion of democratic values in Trump’s administration and celebrates national “Comey” day in the US.

While it is film rather than literature, I could not help but think of some of my favorite works of fiction while watching it. Like James Joyce’s Dublin-based “Ulysses”, it not only takes place in a single day and in an iconic city but seeks to capture the soul of a nation through a group of characters, who like those in films like “Babel” and “Crash”, keep bumping into each other. Indeed, perhaps the true inspiration for an Irish director like O’Reilly was Joyce’s masterpiece.

It also evokes Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit in Brooklyn”, a collection of short stories that examines the gritty underbelly of the borough, sparing neither the characters nor the reader’s sense of propriety. Like William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”, it was part of the beat generation’s assault on the phony values of the Eisenhower years in which the “normalcy” and repression coincided.

We are first introduced to the oligarch Anton (Mikhail Pavlik), a real estate developer who has collided with the Putinite officials who are trying to cheat him out of a contract he signed to build a billion-dollar complex. In his fifties, he has a trophy girlfriend named Katya (Eugenia Khirivskaya) who has been booked to perform at an open-air concert to celebrate City Day, the holiday that celebrates Moscow’s founding, and who is virtually his kept woman.

As she goes about the city shopping for designer clothing we assume that will be on Anton’s dime, she is stalked by a handsome, young man with a haunted expression on his face. He is Ilya (Oleg Dolin), the lover she abandoned who has nothing to offer but his good heart and animal magnetism, which does not go very far in today’s Moscow.

Ilya is the son of a once-famous comedian named Valery (Yuriy Stoyanov), who he has visited in the hospital earlier in the day with the understanding that his father was drinking himself to death. Not very long after the nurse leaves Valery unattended, he dons his clothes and sneaks out of the hospital to find a drinking hole. He steps into a cafeteria that while not selling booze is more than happy to provide a bottle to the miserable man who once made everybody laugh.

He is spotted from a nearby table by petty thieves and gangsta wannanbes who after recognizing Valery come over to take selfies with him using an expensive DSLR camera they have stolen only minutes earlier. They then invite him over to their table to enjoy their questionable company. He says that he has to use the bathroom first—taking the first opportunity to sneak out of the cafeteria when they are not looking. Once he is out the back door and into the rear alley, he is surrounded by the hoodlums who have expected him to duck out. They force him at gunpoint to return to their slummy housing project where they plan to show him off like a pet dog. The tensions between Valery and the feral youth rise until he can no longer take it. He tells them that he needs to return to the hospital whether they like it or not. The thug with the pistol stands in the hallway blocking his exit. The outcome of this confrontation is just one of the film’s surprising dramatic moments that will leave you agape.

Later that evening two of the self-styled gangstas sneak into an exclusive disco where they run into two stepsisters, who can barely stand each other. One is a part-time prostitute and the other is a fairly straight-laced youngster who despite her staid appearance is not only streetwise but tough as nails. The gangstas lure them back to their squat where they expect them to submit sexually. The outcome is as surprising as the one that took place earlier in the same building.

Despite the sense of menace that prevails throughout the film, there are moments of great tenderness, affection and honesty. You develop an affection for all of the characters, including the oligarch and the young thugs who defy stereotypical preconceptions. With a cast of a dozen major characters, O’Reilly is to be commended for thinking through their psychological make-up, their language and their behavior. His screenplay is a throwback to the naturalist fiction of the late 19th century that placed characters in their environment even when they often acted in ways that challenged the expectations of how they would behave. After all, human beings are not laboratory rats. As in Chekhov’s highly naturalistic short stories, O’Reilly’s characters enjoy freedom even to the point of choosing to act against their own self-interest, a not uncommon tendency in capitalist society

Throughout the film, one of the main characters is not even human—in multiple ways. I speak of the alcohol that has made Valery its slave as well as Vladimir, the father of the two stepsisters. Russians drink for a variety of reasons–evoking in their addiction Tolstoy’s observation in “Anna Karenina” that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The unhappiness of Valery, for example, is that of a man who has probably lost a reason for living after his star has faded. For the other boozehounds in “Moscow Never Sleeps”, vodka is the sedative they need to survive in a society that has lost its raison d’être except making money, usually at someone else’s expense.

As someone who never misses an opportunity to see new Russian films, I was impressed with O’Reilly’s ability to capture a reality that I have seen in other films made by native Russians. His background is not typical of the film industry. O’Reilly graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with a degree in Russian, a language that he uses fluently in Moscow, where he lives. In an interview with the school’s alumni department, he spoke about his ties to his adopted country:

Despite the economic recession, the political repression and the war, Moscow’s a great place to be! It’s the biggest city in Europe and is the nearest thing we have to an Asian-style megapolis. It’s a 24-hour city full of kinetic energy with a throbbing arts scene, great cafes, restaurants and a crazy nightlife.

The best thing about Moscow is the people. Russians seem to live life at greater amplitude to us in the West. There’s more suffering, but there’s also more celebration in their lives. And there’s more drama. This is a great inspiration for any writer, filmmaker or person working in the creative arts.

I invite you to read the entire interview to become acquainted with one of the major new cinematic talents today. Better yet, see “Moscow Never Sleeps” at the Village East Cinema, a film that demonstrates what a “great inspiration” Moscow has been for O’Reilly. It will certainly be my pick for the best foreign language film of 2017.

If I avoid hyperbole about narrative films, I also make sure never to use the word “inspirational” about a documentary that most critics have used to the point of cheapening the word irrevocably. Now that I have gotten that out of the way, let me recommend “Night School” as an inspirational film that is playing at the IFC Center in New York and that had me holding back tears in the closing minutes. Knowing what a flinty bastard I am, that should be reason enough to go see a film about three African-Americans ranging from their thirties to their fifties trying to get a high school diploma from a night school.

Set in Indianapolis, this is a largely cinéma vérité work that makes the wise exception to the rule by allowing the three subjects to speak directly to the camera about their aspirations. Mostly, however, it is about them in the classroom working on algebra problems or scrabbling around the city trying to survive. Victims of very harsh economic conditions, they hope that a high school degree will serve as a ladder that will allow them to reach a higher level. Whether or not that will actually happen is not the concern of director Andrew Cohn. His main interest is in showing the indomitable spirit of three people whose lives are a cipher to most middle-class people. Just after I wrote this sentence, I opened the press kit and discovered that this was exactly Cohn’s intention:

We hardly notice them each day: The single mother working the graveyard shift at a fast food joint, a grizzled retiree bagging groceries at the local supermarket, a young busboy collecting half-empty cocktails after close. They are the working poor. And for most of us, they populate our world without much attention or fanfare. There aren’t reality TV shows about them. You won’t see their faces on the newsstand, but they discreetly go about their work with a quiet dignity that keeps America running. We typically observe these folks in passing, never giving much thought about their hopes, dreams, fears, or aspirations.

Greg Henson is a 31 year old single father, whose vivacious and camera-friendly 4-year old daughter Khloe was probably reason enough to motivate him to get a high school degree. It is obvious that it will not be easy for him to break away from his past since poverty has forced many in his neighborhood to get involved in drug sales, including him when he was in his teens. No matter the obstacles put in his path, Henson is determined to turn his life around. There is plenty of “tough love” shown by the night school teachers and counselors, who while understanding the problems the students face insist that they maintain discipline. When Greg meets with a counselor to discuss his recent tardiness, he sheepishly says that it was cold weather that made him late. She looks him in the eye and says, “I am from Jamaica. If I can deal with the cold, so can you.”

Melissa Lewis is an obese woman in her fifties who has a job working in a used clothing store. With a lively sense of humor that belies her menial existence, she says that she is always on the lookout for garments that she’d look good in. She is now a grandmother, having had her first child when she was 14. Watching her do algebra homework is a reminder of the failure of the capitalist system. If Melissa Lewis is motivated enough to go back to school in her 50s, that is proof enough that given the right opportunities and the right economic system, America can enjoy a renaissance that will usher in a thousand years of cultural and material growth.

The third subject is Shynika Jakes, who works at Arby’s for $7.25 per hour. She ended up there because that was the only “precariat” type job that offered set hours, something that was essential for her being able to go to night school. She is homeless, living two nights a week in her car and the other nights at friends who she says will probably get fed up with her at some point. Midway in the film, she runs into an organizer for the $15 per hour movement who persuades her to go out on strike. Given the awful conditions she lives and works under, not much persuasion was necessary.

Cohn indicates that it took a considerable amount of time in Indianapolis to find the three subjects who would help to make the film “dramatic” (even a documentary has to follow Aristotle’s rules.) He has succeeded wildly.

Don’t miss “Night School”. The film is distributed by Oscilloscope, a Brooklyn-based distribution company that came out with the hugely successful “Kedi” last year. Whoever is in charge of acquisitions at Oscilloscope knows what they are doing since this documentary is just as good as “Kedi” and should enjoy great word-of-mouth recommendations. My advice is to see the film and talk it up with your friends. In a period like this, who can’t use a little inspiration?

June 9, 2017

Films From the Battlelines: the 2017 Human Rights Film Festival

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:27 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 9, 2017

Opening tonight in New York, the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival is a reminder that as a genre, the documentary can offer far more compelling drama than any narrative film for the simple reason that reality itself confronts us in a way that fiction cannot. If the narrative film often enjoys its greatest success as an escape from the cares of quotidian existence, the documentary succeeds by showing real people facing the frightening obstacles capitalist society throws in their path.

While Indiana Jones is the prototype of derring-do escapist fantasy, I much prefer the humble people seen in three of the festival documentaries starting with an Iraqi male nurse who is the subject of “Nowhere to Hide” that opens the festival tonight (screening information is here). I regret that this might not be enough lead time for most New Yorkers but it is worth changing your plans to see courageous filmmaking at its best. After all, it is time better spent than watching Seinfeld reruns or the new Wonder Woman movie.

Five years ago, Norwegian-Kurdish documentary filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed approached male nurse Nori Sharif with a project that sounded almost like making a home movie. He would give Sharif a high-end DSLR camera and tripod to capture scenes of daily life in Jalawla, where he lived and worked in the emergency room of the local hospital. This is a town of about 80,000 people that breaks down into 70% Sunni Arab, 20% Feyli Kurd and 10% Shia Turkmen. The film reveals nothing about Sharif’s ethnicity. He identifies solely as an Iraqi throughout the film and his most frequent observation about the state of his country is that it has gone mad.

Continue reading

June 6, 2017

Left Forum 2017

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Last year I boycotted the annual Left Forum conference in New York, an event I have been covering since 2005. As I put it in a blog post last year, “the same sort of idiocy that has taken over the left on Syria has become so pervasive this year that I cannot justify spending $70 to attend.” When I bad-mouthed the 2017 conference this year, someone tipped me off on FB that there were a number of good panels on Syria. Indeed, there were four of them featuring my favorite people to balance those sponsored by the usual gang of “false flag” idiots. Just as encouragingly, I got word that the event would be more tightly controlled this year with an outright ban on 9/11 Truther panels. This elicited a complaint from David Lindorff on Counterpunch that I will address at the end of this report but for now let me turn to the workshops I attended that were among the most productive in my entire experience going to Left Forums.

Saturday 10am-11:50am: The Long Depression – A critique of the book by Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts, blogged about the workshop here. He also advised that the event was recorded and will be available on the Left Forum Youtube channel in a couple of weeks. Roberts is a strong defender of the falling rate of profit thesis found in V. 3 of Capital that not every Marxist agrees with, especially Michael Heinrich.

After Roberts recapitulated the arguments in his new book, he was critiqued by Paul Mattick, the son of the famous Marxist economist, and Jose Tapia—both of whom agreed with the FROP theory but had problems with some of Roberts’s findings that can be recounted in his blog article and that can be heard in all their complexity on the Youtube video when it becomes available.

While I understand the need to examine Marx’s theory against the actual data, I am not sure what bearing it has on the challenges facing the left. While I have problems with the critique of “catastrophism” mounted by people like Sasha Lilley, I have to wonder why economic immiseration does not produce working class motion. Throughout the rust belt, there are millions of workers who have lost their jobs and are being forced to work for Walmarts and other low-wage companies but this has not produced the kind of openness to radical ideas that you saw in the 1930s. Roberts refers to a “long depression” but to some extent I have to wonder about the appropriateness of this term given what I know about the period from my mother’s account. This was a time of great hardship that left families on the edge of disaster.

Roberts tried to explain the difference between recession and depression by referring to two graphic symbols. In the first, you see a V that indicates a sharp drop followed by a recovery to the old economic indicators but with a depression, you see something that looks like this:

Chart can be found here

The problem is that if economic recovery only reaches 80 percent or so of the previous level, that might just be enough to placate a working class that has become accustomed to the idea of austerity. I keep thinking back to Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger and Me” where he interviews unemployed auto workers in Flint who are either raising rabbits for food or making plans to move to Texas where the jobs haven’t dried up. That’s the American working class of today, not “Grapes of Wrath”.

Saturday 12pm-1:50pm: Rural Proletarian Revolutions, Oklahoma and Mexico, 1917: Capitalism, Environmental Disaster, and Why the Land Question Remains Relevant

As a rule of thumb, I try to attend workshops that will add to my knowledge. The provision of economic, historical or social facts that I have been unaware of is a kind of litmus test. With that in mind, the relationship between rural proletarian revolutions and Oklahoma was something I found most intriguing. What was up with that?

It devolved upon long-time scholar and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to explain the connections in a talk on the Green Corn rebellion of 1917 that was about as promising a historical event upon which to make a film as “Free State of Jones”. As it happens, I have been apprised by Roxanne by her events in NY over the years but this was the first time I was able to attend one. I first became aware of her in 1971 when Trotskyist women working in Female Liberation were giving reports to the branch about the problems they were having with Abby Rockefeller and Roxanne Dunbar, who were in Cell 16. Looking back in retrospect, I should have gotten up and defended Abby and Roxanne. The SWP had a tendency to force its agenda on social movements and this was no exception, I’m sure.

Roxanne would seem to be well-equipped to speak about the Oklahoma left given her background (from Wikipedia):

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1939 to an Oklahoma family, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in Central Oklahoma, daughter of a sharecropper and a mother that Dunbar believes to have been Native American. Dunbar’s paternal grandfather, a settler of Scots-Irish ancestry, was a landed farmer, veterinarian, a labor activist and a Socialist Party member in Oklahoma and also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, “Wobblies.” Her father was named after the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World—Moyer Haywood Pettibone Scarberry Dunbar. Her father’s stories of her grandfather inspired her to lifelong social justice activism.

Since the panel was sponsored by Monthly Review, it would help to refer you to an article Roxanne wrote that covered the Green Corn rebellion.

In August 1917, tenant farmers and sharecroppers in several eastern and southern Oklahoma counties took up arms to overthrow the United States government, to stop military conscription and U.S. entry into the war in Europe. Renegade Socialists, organized in their own “Working Class Union” (WCU), white, black, and Indian, they believed that millions of armed working people across the country would march with them to take Washington.

In a time of leftist disparagement of rural farmers and workers, what better time than now to study this important part of working class history? My friend Yale Strom has made a documentary about Eugene V. Debs that covers the support he received in Oklahoma and other such “boondock” locations that the SP and the IWW oriented to. Maybe it’s time for a revival of Debs socialism that has little to do with what Bernie Sanders spoke about.

Saturday 3:30pm-5:15pm: Geopolitics, the International Left, and the Syrian Revolt

This was one of four panel discussions at the Left Forum that marked a departure from the majoritarian “anti-imperialist” camp. Although I am obviously familiar with the arguments that would have presented here, I made a point of attending since it helps my morale to see other people who continue to fight the good fight. The event was sponsored by The Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution whose FB page is at https://www.facebook.com/Global-Campaign-of-Solidarity-with-the-Syrian-Revolution-147353662105485/.

Among the speakers were Ashley Smith, an ISO’er who has been writing terrific stuff on Syria, Loubna Mrie, who debated the wretched Max Blumenthal, Joseph Daher and Malak Chabkoun, who was described as an “independent researcher” and who I had not heard of before. Blumenthal, I should add, disparaged all of these anti-Assad panels and referred people on Twitter to the only pro-Assad panel that was the only one not to include a Syrian. Fancy that. My advice is to check Malak Chabkoun’s articles on al-Jazeera. She is really sharp.

Daher was as incisive as ever but I am not sure whether his call for ending the war in Syria will fall on deaf ears. It is true that peace will allow civil society to regather momentum but as long as the Assadists are in power, the same old restrictions will remain. The struggle against despotic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa will take decades to win and will likely gain the upper hand when the left is much more powerful globally. At least the “primitive accumulation” of a pro-revolution movement as represented by the speakers at this workshop gives hope that a better day lies ahead.

Saturday 5:20pm-7:10pm: Evaluation of Progressive Governments in Latin America in Recent Years

This was in sharp contrast to all the Chavista workshops at Left Forum over the years that featured people like Steve Ellner and Dario Azzellini over the years. Concurring with Jeffery Webber and people writing for the ISO press, the talks focused on the structural flaws of the Pink Tide that evolved from their dependence on commodity exports such as soybeans, oil, etc. that were gobbled up by an expanding Chinese economy.

For one of the speakers, an Argentine named Juan Kornblihtt, this was explained on the reliance on “ground rent”, a form of surplus value extraction analyzed by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital. I first ran across Juan Kornblihtt’s analysis while preparing an article for CounterPunch dealing with the point of view expressed by the speakers, which can be likened to a coroner’s report.

Essentially, Kornblihtt and others such as Daniel Ellinger who are committed to the ground rent analysis tie mining and agriculture (the “rent” is extracted from the soil or ground) to a decline in manufacturing, which is capable of providing more traditional forms of wage income. For Lula and Chavez, the “rent” could be used to provide subsidies to families and hence their support until prices began to drop.

I pointed out in the discussion period that investments in manufacturing might have dried up because capitalist investors saw much more profit in soybeans or oil than in starting up an auto sector—as if Brazil or Venezuela could ever compete with South Korea or Japan.

You can read Kornblihtt’s article here.

Much of it relies on the research of Juan Iñigo Carerra, a subscriber to the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail. Juan used to write in a style that sounded like a parody of Marx’s Grundrisse. He was quite the character.

Sunday 12pm-1:50pm India’s Contested Spaces: Labor, Land, and Environment

This was sponsored by India Civil Watch, a new group dedicated to opposing Modi that appears to involve some of the activist-scholars who used to sponsor workshops at Left Forum in the name of http://sanhati.com/.

Their analysis rests on the premise that Modi’s neoliberalism is simply an extension of Congress Party rule that will be distinguished by its attack on India’s marginalized population. Among the speakers was Biju Mathew, whose name was familiar to me as the founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the only trade union that bears any resemblance to the labor movements of the past. He was also a member of the board of the now defunct Brecht Forum that these Left Forum events remind me of. No matter how valuable my exchanges with Marxists on the Internet, there is nothing about the face-to-face encounters in real space that stay with you.

In his talk, Mathew compared Modi to Trump, something that makes a lot more sense than Mussolini or Hitler for that matter. Matthew’s article on Modi’s election victory can be read on Sanhati (http://sanhati.com/excerpted/10478/) and is well worth it:

We are no longer fighting to defeat the BJP. Instead we are fighting for a new meaning and a more revolutionary democratic form that exceeds the bourgeois liberal framework we have been stuck within. It doesn’t matter that it may well take us a decade or more to win this battle. It’s the only kind of fight that can withstand the majoritarian logic especially now that the capitalist elite have signed on to it fully. This battle fortunately won’t be unique to India. All across the world liberal democracy under conditions of neoliberal dominance has begun to come apart on the question of minorities. In the US and the UK, for instance, Islamophobia and anti-third-world migrant sentiment has produced the sharpest divisions in civil society. In post-revolution Egypt, the struggle has also turned in significant part on the question of minority rights, though for now the army has fundamentally short circuited the debate. The significant showing of nine fascist parties in the EU elections is an indicator that in almost every part of Europe a majoritarian sentiment is on the rise. In Iran, the emergence of the Green movement over the last decade articulates aspects of a similar problematic. In Pakistan, the struggles around the status of Shias, Christians and the Baluch invoke the same limits. The solution in the end is to produce a global revolution in the democratic form that must arrest majoritarianism. Let’s work to put into place our part in this revolution.

Sunday 3:40pm-5:40pm Puerto Rico and the Junta: A tale of colonial and neocolonial dispossession

Three speakers, all Puerto Rican, spoke about how the island was being raped by hedge fund investors and a colonial government that bent over backwards to satisfy them. Ian Seda-Irizarry, who is in the economics department at John Jay—the host of the Left Forum, asked his fellow panelists who the most progressive governor of Puerto Rico was. They had no idea that he was speaking of Rex Tugwell, one of FDR’s top economics advisers who served as governor during WWII.

For the three speakers, the big job now is coming up with the data that can demonstrate how vulture funds are destroying the Puerto Rican economy. I recommend panelist Ed Morales’s article on the Puerto Rican crisis in The Nation and would urge you to pay close attention to the section that shows how the black bloc tactic was used to victimize 42 groups that are on the frontlines attacking austerity and colonialism. I also recommend Ed’s interview with Ian that includes a discussion of salsa music, something that he knows as well as his Marxist economics.

Afterword on Dave Lindorff’s article:

Titled “Left Forum Bans Four Panels Under Zionist Pressure”, the article takes up the case of Veterans Today editor Kevin Barrett and Anthony Hall, a tenured professor of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

Supposedly they were banned for anti-Semitism although I would have booted Barrett for his 9/11 crap that supposedly was being purged from this year’s Left Forum and all future events—thank god. They told him that they had no use for his workshops, a sign of growing maturity on the left. It seems that Lindorff was scheduled to appear alongside Barrett on the “false flag” panel discussion that included Barrett and someone named Ole Dammegard.

  • False Flags: Staged, Scripted, Mass Psy-Op Events 2-3:50pm Speakers: Dr. Kevin Barrett, Dave Lindorff, Ole Dammegard • Moderator: Dr. Lucy Morgan Edwards
  • 9/11 Truth: Ground Zero for a Resistance Movement 4-5:50pm Speakers: Dr. Kevin Barrett, Barbara Honegger, Richard Gage • Moderator: Dr. Lucy Morgan Edwards

You can get a feel for Dammegard’s provenance from this:

During the interview, Ole Dammegard also affirms the role of elites such as David Rockefeller and the Rockefeller group, and the Rothschild City of London banking families in originating the Kennedy assassination for a variety of motives, ranging from Kennedy’s breakaway from the Rothschild-controlled Federal Reserve Bank in printing U.S. Treasury silver-backed currency to Kennedy’s plan to end the Vietnam War.

This sort of person has no business at the Left Forum. If Dave Lindorff wants to start a conspiracist conference, let him get in touch with Michel Chossudovsky and Alex Jones.

As far as Anthony Hall is concerned, his panels were also shit-canned:

  • Political Correctness: The Dangers of Thought Crime Police 10:00-11:50am Speakers: Dr. Anthony Hall, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel • Moderator: Cheryl Curtiss
  • Terrorism”: Fake Enemies, Fraudulent Wars Noon-1:50pm Speakers: Michael Springmann, Dr. Anthony Hall, Dr. Kevin Barrett • Moderator: Tom Kiely

Trying to prove that Hall is anti-Semitic is not that easy. He was punished by his university for tolerating an anti-Semitic comment on his FB page. He has also made a Youtube video urging “open debate” on the Holocaust, a rather fishy call if you ask me.

For my money, his worst offense and grounds from dismissal from Left Forum events is the imbecilic conspiracism that he and Veterans Today publisher Kevin Barrett traffic in. Like Barrett, Hall is a big-time 9/11 Truther. He runs two websites that offer the same crap as Global Research, Infowars, Off-Guardian, Moon of Alabama, Information Clearing House, et al.

One of them, No Lies Radio, will allow you to listen to the banned panels for only $15. If you want to waste your money on that rather than a nice bottle of Pinot Noir, be my guest.

Hall also runs American Herald Tribune that has about as much to do with the original newspaper that Donald Trump has to do with Abraham Lincoln. This website is virtually indistinguishable from a thousand others that traffic in 9/11, False Flag, pro-Assad talking points that more and more can be seen as shared by people like Richard Spencer, David Duke and Alex Jones. For me, the disappearance of Assadist and 9/11 panel discussions at the Left Forum is a welcome sign that the left is finally waking up from a deep slumber.

June 2, 2017

The High Cost of Gadgetry

Filed under: computers,Counterpunch,Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm

Two new documentaries will make you look differently at your electronic gadgets, especially the cool iPhone or other products from Apple whose logo might be changed to a skull-and-crossbones after seeing “Death by Design” and “Complicit”. They examine the damage done to both the workers who produce them and the environment, especially in China, as well as raise important questions about the meaning of “progress”. If being able to use an iPhone to pay for your Starbucks coffee comes at the expense of a leukemia epidemic for Foxconn workers and making 60 percent of China’s groundwater unsuitable for drinking, then the whole question of progress has to be thought through.

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