Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2018

Harvard University, bias against Asian-Americans, affirmative action and “life itself”

Filed under: Academia,affirmative action,bard college,Education — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Edward Blum, using Asian-American student grievances to destroy affirmative action

Towards the end of the very fine documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on Friday, May Ngai, the radical history professor at Columbia University, weighs in on the new forms of discrimination that Chinese face even as the vicious racism directed against coolie labor has ended:

So in the late ’60s and early ’70s you have a disproportionate number of highly educated Asians who came in under the 1965 Act. This is a period of an expanding economy in the United States, with more and more R&D work; technical work. Now, a curious consequence of the Hart-Celler Act is that we’re still left with the idea that Chinese are other. They may not be the Yellow Peril of the 19th century and early 20th century. But now they’re the super-achieving students who keep your kids out of college – right? So they’re either evil or super-achievers.

So when I saw the headline on a NY Times article from two days ago titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says”, my immediate reaction was to side with the legal action that forced Harvard to turn over admission records in compliance with a suit being filed against the school for discrimination, especially since this was just a variation on what Jews faced once upon a time. A court document prepared by the Students for Fair Admissions stated: “It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along. Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

It turns out that the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, who is not a lawyer, is a Jew named Edward Blum whose purpose it is to connect aggrieved students, who see themselves as victims of affirmative action, with attorneys all too happy to turn back the clock. He helped get the gears in motion in a suit against the University of Texas at Austin two years ago on behalf of two white women–Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz—who were angry that Black and Latino students with lower grades than theirs were admitted to the school under affirmative action. The Supreme Court rejected their claims. What will happen as Trump nominates more racists in this term and the one likely to follow in 2020 is predictable.

Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act”. What’s that you ask? It stipulates that states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices are not permitted to change the rules for elections without first persuading the Justice Department (or a court) that their new policies will improve, or at least not harm, minority representation. So when Mississippi or Alabama decide to screw Black people out of the right to vote, people like Blum are on the side of the racists. Blum got his way in 2013, when the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 in a suit he helped initiate. Without Section 4, Section 5 is toothless.

In fact, Blum’s last big assault on racial equality took place last year when he heard about a proposed state law that would require had forced Poway, California to redo its voting districts so Latinos would have a better chance of winning elections.

How does Blum get funding for the work he does? It turns out that most of it comes from the Searle Freedom Trust, a rightwing foundation founded by Daniel Searle, the deceased pharmaceutical billionaire who stated its goals on its website as “creating an environment that promotes individual freedom and economic liberties, while encouraging personal responsibilities and a respect for traditional American values.”

In a follow-up article in today’s NY Times, you get a feel for the wariness some Asian-Americans about what Blum is up to. Titled “Asian-Americans Face Multiple Fronts in Battle Over Affirmative Action”, it identifies Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos in the USA as suffering higher degrees of poverty than Chinese or Japanese-Americans and being sympathetic to affirmative action.

In 2010, T.K. Park, who blogs as Ask a Korean, replied to a query about whether practices such as Harvard follows was an injustice since it limited the numbers of Asian-American admissions:

You might be surprised, because the Korean actually does think it is a good thing.

First of all, allow the Korean to first state his preferred end result: meritocracy must be an important element in college admissions. The meritocracy must involve clearly stated criteria such as test scores, quality of extracurricular activities, quality of letters of recommendation, and so on. And the Korean is not advocating that college campuses mirror exactly the local or national racial mix. There must be some sort of middle ground. The Korean does not know where the proper middle ground is. But the middle ground is probably not the 55 percent Asian American campus as it is in University of California, Irvine.

To explain why the Korean thinks so, allow the Korean to quote John Dewey: “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” Because the Korean experienced two drastically different educational systems (Korean and American,) the truth of Dewey’s quote resonates even stronger with him. In fact, many of Korean educational system’s flaws (despite its numerous strengths) can be traced to this: Korea treats its schools as a place where students prepare for the real world, as opposed to treating it as the real world in and of itself. Thus, learning knowledge is emphasized, while learning social skills gets a short shrift.

The same principle must apply to colleges. College is not a meal ticket given for a certain set of “good behaviors”. It is a place where one receives education. And if colleges do not adequately reflect the “life itself” as Dewey said, they cannot provide adequate education.

What is missing from the discussion about “reverse discrimination” is any engagement with the broader question of competition among different ethnic groups to succeed in the high stakes game of musical chairs, where admission to an Ivy college will open doors to professional success after graduation.

Last year, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia revealed to me that there were four suicides between September and January, 2017. This was not just Columbia’s problems. In 2013, there were three suicides at Harvard. While not an Ivy, NYU is certainly a place that is on any A-List. I remember when George Rupp met with us in Columbia’s IT department to tell us that the competition between his school and NYU was intense. I got a chuckle out of him telling us that the appointment of some high-profile Marxists like Jon Elster had helped our reputation.

So, what do you expect when schools become pressure cookers in such competition? For NYU students, something had to give. After two students jumped from the upper floors walkway to their death inside the Eleanor Bobst Library, the administration enclosed the 12-story atrium with perforated aluminum screens in an effort to prevent suicides, just like they have done at the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges.

The most poignant story, however, was MIT’s. On April 10, 2002, Elizabeth Shin, a Korean-American student, self-immolated in her dormitory room. Even though she sent multiple emails to faculty members threatening suicide, the school ignored the warning signs. The night before she had burned herself to death, she even tried to plunge a knife into her chest but had a failure of nerve. A NY Times article dated April 28, 2002 conveys the hopes her parents placed in her:

For the Shins, M.I.T., whose undergraduate population is 30 percent Asian-American, was the gold standard. Elizabeth was accepted at Yale too. It is possible, her mother says wistfully, that Elizabeth would have been happier there. She was an artistic soul, and if her SAT’s were any measure, she was stronger in English — she got 799 out of 800 on her SAT verbal and her SAT II writing test — than in math and science. But Elizabeth wanted to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases, as she put it. If that is your goal, her father says, and you get into M.I.T., ”you don’t think twice about it.”

”As far as M.I.T., to me, it’s the best institution on earth,” Cho Shin says.

Back in 1961, I was a junior in high school and well on my way to admission to Columbia University since I had no competition for the valedictorian award. But since my mother worried so much about my alienation and unhappiness from high school, she and the principal agreed that the best thing for me was to skip my senior year and go to Bard College on an early admission plan. Who knows? That might have saved me from jumping out a window. I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be a freshman at a male-only college where every other valedictorian was competing with me and themselves to stand out.

Bard College, as Ask a Korean cited John Dewey, was a place that reflected “life itself”. Armed with a Bard degree, it was likely that Merrill Lynch would have hired a Harvard graduate rather than me but to Bard’s credit it was a place where you would be inculcated against the values that Merrill Lynch represented.

Although I am a bit skeptical about the claim that John Dewey was experiment with democratic socialism (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/john-dewey-democratic-socialism-liberalism), I do give him credit for helping places like Bard College to create an environment where students don’t kill themselves over the stresses associated with Ivy schools.

In the 1930s, Bard and Sarah Lawrence became models of Deweyite precepts about higher education. His followers at Columbia University transformed an Episcopalian-oriented training ground for the clergy into Bard that some called the “Hudson Valley experimental school.”

An August 5, 1934 NY Times article titled “CURRICULUM IS REVERSED; New Plan at Bard College Is Designed to Give the Student’s Interest Freer Play” indicated how revolutionary the approach would be:

Second, the particular abilities, interests and purposes of the student himself [it became co-ed in 1944] will be the centre around which he will be permitted, under guidance, to build his own course of study. He will not be looked upon as so much material to be run into a mold but as an individual whose growth is to be stimulated and nourished. The student, as soon as he enters, will select one general field of study in which he will try his powers. The field be selects as his own will presumably be the one in which he has been most interested and has demonstrated most ability before coming to college.

That’s what we need, schools in which students are not “material to be run into a mold”. Ironically, it is just such schools that have become historically superseded by the corporatization of higher education and forced into bankruptcy. Ultimately, the goal should be to destroy corporatization in all its forms and allow students to prepare themselves for jobs in a socialist society that are not “bullshit”, as David Graeber puts it. Just as we have entered a new Gilded Age, history is crying out for a new Progressive movement that counted John Dewey among its leading lights. But given the class realities of a decaying capitalist system, the only progressivism that has a chance of succeeding today is one that is based on the need for working people to take power in their own name.

June 15, 2018

The Chinese Exclusion Act; The Unafraid

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:25 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 15, 2018

Since nativism is largely responsible for the election of Donald Trump, the left is obligated to understand its roots as well as the impact it is having on those who are its most visible victims. Two new documentaries will help us develop both the historical and personal dimensions of the great stain across the body politic that has existed almost since the beginning of what Robinson Jeffers called our “perishing republic”.

The Chinese Exclusion Act” premiered last month on PBS but is thankfully available now on-demand. Directed by Ric Burns, it is not filled with the sort of flag-waving liberalism found in his brother Ken’s work. It is a history of a racist immigration law that was passed in 1882 and remained on the books until it was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943 when China became a key ally in the war against Japan. FDR knew full well how embarrassing such a racist law would appear in Asia, especially when Japan was pushing anti-colonial rhetoric as part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere. Using the standard Burns brothers documentary techniques the film paints a portrait of the real contribution Chinese labor made to economic development, all the while struggling to overcome white racism, including that of trade unions and political parties upholding the rights of the “working man”.

To be shown at the Human Rights Film Festival in New York on June 21st, “The Unafraid” derives its title from the chant of DACA students sitting in at a state college in Athens, Georgia: “We are undocumented; we are unafraid!” It tracks the struggle of four high school seniors brought to the USA from Mexico as young children to now overcome the obstacles they face in one of the country’s most viciously anti-immigrant states. They formed a local activist group called Freedom University that sought to end the punitive practice of forcing undocumented students to pay non-resident tuition fees even though they lived nearly their entire lives in Georgia. Coming from hard-pressed families barely scraping by, the non-resident tuition fees costing triple what residents paid stood in the way of getting a college degree.

Continue reading


June 14, 2018

Commentary on Max Ajl’s “Notes on Libya”

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

A fan’s scrapbook

In a more than 6000 word article titled “Notes on Libya” in the February Viewpoint Magazine, Max Ajl makes the case for Gaddafi by drawing liberally from Horace Campbell’s 2013 “Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya” published by Monthly Review. This was the not first time he defended Gaddafi. The same year that Campbell’s book was published, Maxmilian Forte’s “Slouching Towards Sirte” came out, a book Ajl reviewed for the pro-Gaddafi MRZine. Although I have not read Campbell’s book, it seems that it was mostly about the calamity of NATO intervention rather than an encomium to the “Green Revolution”. Indeed, in 2010 Campbell wrote an article about Gaddafi being an obstacle to African unity, evidently something Ajl must have either missed reading or consciously sidestepped.

As for Forte, Ajl probably leaned more in his direction as far as evaluating Gaddafi’s Pan-African credentials:

Furthermore, Forte does a very good job of pulling together the reasons the United States never liked Qadhafi—his prickliness with respect to U.S. investment, his leadership in Africa, his support of the African National Congress, and his resolute hostility to AFRICOM and U.S. bases on African soil.

Of course, if this Cornell graduate student had taken the trouble to spend an hour or so researching Gaddafi’s attitude toward AFRICOM, he would have not written such nonsense—unless of course his only goal was writing propaganda. When General William Ward, the commander of AFRICOM, paid a visit to Libya in 2009, he saw no obstacles to cooperation between the U.S. and Libya:

[D]uring my last visit to Tripoli I had a very good meeting with the Leader. He and I were able to talk about my command; we were able to give him some thoughts on the United States Africa Command and what the command is about. And I think because of that, we gave him additional information that enabled him to have a better understanding of the command.

AFRICOM issued a press release that confirmed Ward’s impressions:

“They (AFRICOM officials) clarified everything,” Abdelgane [a Libyan air force General] said in an interview with AFN-Europe. “And they are making our mission easier … to rise up the level of understanding between the militaries … and to move for further cooperation to the benefit of both countries.”

In January 2009, Libya and the United States signed a defense cooperation memorandum of understanding, which provides the framework for a military-to-military relationship and cooperation on programs of mutual interest.

Even Wikileaks noticed the amity between the anti-imperialist leader and those who posed a mortal threat:

there was a possibility for cooperation with AFRICOM in combating terrorism in the Sahara and piracy. He said that he could deal with “the new America without reservation”, now that the United States was governed by “a new spirit of change.”

So what the heck was that “new spirit of change”? It was about the rapprochement between the Bush administration and Gaddafi that was symbolized in part by his weird obsession with Condoleeza Rice, whose photos he kept in an album that rebels found in his enclave after he was overthrown. On the occasion of her state visit to Libya, the NY Times reported:

After all, the Libyan leader had professed his “love” for the American secretary of state. “I support my darling black African woman,” Colonel Qaddafi told the network Al Jazeera last year. “I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders.”

He continued: “Yes, Leezza, Leezza, Leezza… I love her very much.”

“Combatting terrorism” created the same kind of bromance—at least on a temporary basis—as there is between Trump and Putin. The LA Times reported on September 4, 2005:

As it struggles to combat Islamic terrorist networks, the Bush administration has quietly built an intelligence alliance with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi [sic, a novel spelling if there ever was one], a onetime bitter enemy the U.S. had tried for years to isolate, topple or kill.

Kadafi has helped the U.S. pursue Al Qaeda’s network in North Africa by turning radicals over to neighboring pro-Western governments. He also has provided information to the CIA on Libyan nationals with alleged ties to international terrorists.

In turn, the U.S. has handed over to Tripoli some anti-Kadafi Libyans captured in its campaign against terrorism. And Kadafi’s agents have been allowed into the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to interrogate Libyans being held there.

Now, of course, “fighting terrorism” is something near and dear to Ajl’s heart, just as it is to Max Blumenthal. Their obsession with jihadis is as extreme as Christopher Hitchens’s was in the early 2000s but legitimate in their eyes since it was Putin rather than Bush who was trying to “fight al-Qaeda”.

Much of his article refers to Islamic terrorists like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that tried to assassinate Gaddafi in 1996 and that was, in his words, “linked to Western intelligence”. Ajl wants you to believe that the MI6, which did pay $160,000 to the LIFG for a hit on Gaddafi, was in cahoots with the same outfit that would play a leading role in the 2011 uprising. However, that’s only if you don’t bother to investigate what happened down the road when jihadis became persona non grata after 9/11. In 2004 MI6 turned over an exiled LIFG leader, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, to Gaddafi’s torture dungeons. Mark Allen, the head of MI6’s counterterrorism unit, crowed, “This was the least [the UK] could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built in recent years”.

Like Stephen Gowans’s defense of the idea that socialism existed in Syria, Ajl relies on non-Marxists to lend credibility to the absurd idea of a socialist Libya albeit with a hedging strategy:

One of the leading scholars of Libya argues, “If socialism is defined as a redistribution of wealth and resources, a socialist revolution clearly occurred in Libya after 1969 and most especially in the second half of the 1970s.” Certainly such a redistribution must redistribute downwards if the word is to retain any meaning. Furthermore, we may object at limiting socialism to material distribution. Socialism can also more broadly refer to self-management, including participation in political institutions. In Libya, the character of state institutions was prohibitive of that participation – a structural defect which laid the grounds for Libya’s later deterioration.

The leading scholar referred to above is one Ronald Bruce St John, who whatever his credentials, and I am sure they are substantial, has little grasp of what a socialist revolution consists of given his assertion that “Socialism was a part of most 20th century revolutions, especially those in the Middle East”. Especially those in the Middle East? What could he possibly be speaking of? We also had African socialism, which involved “redistribution”. Under Julius Nyere, Tanzania put a ceiling on capitalist development in order to allow petty commodity production to prevail. Was that socialism? When the FLN took power in Algeria, it nationalized oil—just as Gaddafi would—and fostered worker self-management as well as “redistributing” oil wealth.

What Ajl misses is the real character of such states that can best be described as rentier in nature or what Gilbert Achcar calls patrimonial. In my review of his “The People Want” for CounterPunch, I describe a state of affairs that prevailed in nearly every state in the Middle East and North Africa:

The analysis in that chapter is at least for this reader the major theoretical contribution made by Gilbert Achcar. While Max Weber is a thinker who might be unfashionable in the academy nowadays, Achcar puts his concept of the patrimonial state to good use.  For Achcar, patrimonialism is an absolute, hereditary type of autocratic power that relies on an entourage built of “kith and kin” and which uses the state to protect its interests and those who it favors. Essentially, the term “crony capitalism” describes the power relationships that existed throughout the region despite the tendency of some rulers to cloak themselves in the rhetoric of national liberation and socialism.

For some on the left, there is a tendency to put the most positive spin on patrimonial states when they appear disposed to provide benefits of one sort or another to the population. While this is obviously not socialism, it is a petroleum-fueled welfare state that bears some resemblance to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution—or so it would seem.

However, oil revenue can be a double-edged sword. When a state’s treasury relies on oil revenues rather than taxes, such as is the case in Kuwait where tax revenues comprised less than 1 percent of GDP, the ruling clique is not bound by obligations to a largely non-existent tax-paying population.

Oil and gas production in MENA is an industry that generates ground-rent in terms understood by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital. This simply means that unlike manufacturing, the means of production can largely do without labor. Wealth is being generated but not jobs. This goes a long way to explain the disproportionately large informal sector in MENA. If factory jobs are virtually non-existent, then the only recourse is to emigrate (the region is known for its massive export of labor) or becoming a street peddler. When a state that has grown indifferent to a non-taxpaying base and has nourished corruption and payoffs throughout the body politic, no wonder someone like Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit peddler, could have touched off the Arab revolts through his self-immolation after years of paying off the cops or being beaten and harassed by them.

Despite the occasional report about diversification in oil-producing nations, manufacturing remains stunted. Compared to Israel that lacks any sort of mineral wealth but enjoys a robust manufacturing base, the Arab states are extremely underdeveloped. Why is there so little commitment from the elites, even on a capitalist basis, to use oil revenue to remove the distortions that plague the local economies?

If you are a Marxist, as Ajl claims to be, that’s the starting point: class relations in a given national framework. Once, your unit of analysis becomes the nation-state rather than class, it is easy to lose your way.

His article is filled with references to many reputable scholars including Raymond Hinnebusch. However, none of them are recognized Marxist scholars. If anything, there is a dearth of Marxist scholarship on Libya. A search in New Left Review, Historical Materialism and Socialist Register turns up practically nothing.

I had hopes to write a series of articles about Libya that would be similar to those I have written about Syria but demands on my time have made that very difficult. If I were to find the time, much of my output would be based on a 2015 collection titled “The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath”, edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn.

It goes a long way to explaining the collapse of the Libyan revolution that is to some extent the outcome of NATO intervention, something I agree with Ajl and company on, but there’s a lot more to it. I recommend the NY Review of Books review of the book that this excerpt will help you to understand its value:

It was always unrealistic to expect Libyans to emerge overnight from four decades of whimsical dictatorship into a state of democratic institutions. Western powers provided the military support to oust the colonel, but myopically not the civilian support to put a workable administration in his place. When civilians tried to erect a modern state themselves, warlords from the different parts of Libya easily bypassed the elections that had been held and seized power in the name of whatever cause they hoped might attract support. Some militia leaders justify their recourse to arms as a battle against jihadi Islamists or the remnants of the Qaddafi regime. Others claim to defend whatever tribal, religious, or ethnic group might win them local constituencies. They have tried to revive traditional myths in order to cultivate fresh loyalties. In the process a once relatively homogeneous society has splintered into multiple bickering armed groups.

The irrepressible rise of Libya’s many contending forces is one of the enigmas of the 2011 revolution. When Libyans first revolted, they counted among their blessings that they had few of the cleavages of sect and ethnicity that divided other Arab states. Through intermarriage, relocation for work, and Qaddafi’s deliberate jumbling of ethnic groups, many Libyans had multiple associations spanning the country’s vast terrain.

Yet The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, a compilation edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, British analysts of Libya, is a timely acknowledgment that Libya’s chemistry is older than the laboratory Qaddafi fashioned. The book traces not only the colonel’s demise, as many others have done, but the appearance of a lesser-known new cast. Written almost entirely by foreign experts, some of whom know the different factions intimately, it is the most detailed account I have read of the old forces shaping new Libya. Chapter by chapter, it analyzes each of the “sub-national identities” jostling for influence, and the communal narratives their representatives use to promote their claims. They include Libya’s Islamists, the merchants of Misrata, the Arab Bedouin tribes concentrated in the Green Mountains of the east, the indigenous Imazighen (i.e., Berbers) in the west, and the two ethnic groups of Libya’s slice of the Sahara—the Tuareg and Tubu.

Libya in its current shape is a recent, fragile construct, originating in Italy’s invasion of 1911, exactly a century before the Arab Spring. It has been fracturing and reuniting ever since. Unable to overcome the Arab Bedouin tribes in the east, Italy’s first wave of colonizers sanctioned the creation of an autonomous Emirate of Cyrenaica. In 1929 Benito Mussolini tried again, and succeeded by imprisoning tens of thousands of Bedouins in concentration camps, where half of them died. After World War II, the British backed the revival of the Cyrenaican emirate replete with a king, Idris I. But the discovery of oil, whose fields and pipelines straddled boundaries, drew Libya’s disparate provinces into ever closer union. In 1951, Cyrenaica established a federation with the Fezzan region in the south, hitherto under French hegemony, and Tripolitania in the northwest, also under the British. King Idris added a green and a red band below and above his black flag with a white crescent. And in 1963, under King Idris, Libya abolished the federation and declared itself a single unified state.

For forty-two years, Qaddafi, who called himself Il Duce with overtones of Mussolini, suppressed these separate identities. But once he had fallen, vulnerable Libyans floundering for some means of protection turned to their closest kin. In Tripoli each district of the city assembled its armed wing. Islamists organized anti-vice squads, and the Imazighen established “rapid deployment forces” to support neighborhoods with high concentrations of Berbers. Libya’s new power brokers revived and inflamed ancient grievances to consolidate their hold.

June 12, 2018

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part one)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

A couple of years before an English-language version of Pierre Broue’s “History of the German Revolution 1917-1923” was published, I was motivated to find out about this period since I was fairly sure that the catastrophe in Germany not only led to the rise of Nazism but to the “Leninist” model adopted by the entire left.

In searching for a scholarly account of the defeat of the German revolution, I turned to a book by Werner Angress titled “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” that gave me the details I needed to flesh out an article written in the early 2000s titled “The Comintern and the German Communist Party”, which covered Paul Levi’s opposition to the insane ultraleft March Action of 1921 as well as another fiasco two years later that was orchestrated by Gregory Zinoviev. When Zinoviev’s meddling in the German class struggle damaged his reputation almost beyond repair, he sought to keep a lid on discontent in the world Communist movement by carrying out a “Bolshevization” turn in 1924 that codified a rigid “democratic centralist” method of functioning that has led to sect and cult formations everywhere it has been followed. To show you how universal it became, James P. Cannon voted enthusiastically for the turn and even after he became a Trotskyist, he never abandoned this dogmatic version of Bolshevik practice. Neither did Trotsky, for that matter.

Following the release of Broue’s book, the name of Paul Levi became well-known on the left and was invoked by Marxist scholars grappling with the problem of sectarianism. This matter came up recently when John Riddell, a major scholar of the early Comintern, posted an article by Paul Le Blanc on his blog that originally appeared in Historical Materialism as a critique of Antonio Negri who had written a broadside against Leninist parties on the basis that Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” made them “cut some vanguards off at the legs and made it impossible for them to make themselves adequate to the particular situations they were meant to intervene in.” I tend to agree with this even though I generally regard Negri as even more foolish than those responsible for the March Action. In fact, it was his support for Italian “autonomists”, who were in the habit of breaking the bones of professors who they disagreed with politically, that helped to destroy the Italian left.

Like Broue, Le Blanc believes that the March Action and the 1923 abortive revolution that Zinoviev tried to direct from afar were mistakes but credits the sublime wisdom of Lenin for trying to triangulate between Levi, who had been expelled from the German CP for his public critique of the March Action, and the ultraleft CP leadership and the Comintern emissaries (Bela Kun and Karl Radek) who were their partners in political mayhem. Le Blanc puts it this way:

This deference to a majority in the German Communist leadership actually reflects democratic rather than bureaucratic tendencies in the early Comintern (even though Lenin agreed with Levi’s critique of what the hotheads had done).

I have a different take on this entirely. There was never anything “democratic” about the early Comintern. As I point out in my article, Leon Trotsky gave instructions to the French CP about what should go on the front page of their newspaper and even cajoled the feckless German CP leader Heinrich Brandler into scheduling the misbegotten 1923 uprising to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

I have no problem recommending Pierre Broue even though he comes at things from the same angle as Paul Le Blanc. Broue, who died in 2005, was a member of Pierre Lambert’s movement and could obviously not go so far as to repudiate the Comintern. For the ISO, there is much less of that kind of baggage since they broke from Tony Cliff’s mother ship.

Since Le Blanc’s article generated a lot of very good discussion on FB and since the role of Paul Levi continues to be a hot topic on the left, I am starting a series of posts that are drawn from the chapters in Werner Angress’s books that deal directly with the March Action and Zinoviev’s 1923 adventure.

A word or two about Angress is in order. He died in 2010 at the age of 80. He and his family left Germany in 1937, barely escaping the holocaust. He was drafted in 1941 and ended up serving with the “Ritchie Boys”, a group of German-speaking paratroopers who fought behind German lines just like in “Inglourious Basterds”. After the war, Angress became a history professor and taught at SUNY, Stony Brook for 25 years.

Below you will see the chapter titled “The Genesis of the March Uprising” sans footnotes. They would be too laborious to reproduce and are not necessary for understanding the analysis. The word Zentrale appears repeatedly. It is a reference to the KPD’s (German CP) Central Committee that Levi had resigned from after he and his supporters lost a vote involving who to support in the Italian CP. Except for the fact that those who had a majority on the Zentrale were bonkers ultra-left, it is not worth getting into.

Any inquiry into the origins of the series of events, which in Communist parlance has become known as the into the origins of that complex series of events known as the März Aktion of 1921 must take into account the KPD’s rise to the status of mass party. Although its estimated importance may have been unrealistic when compared to the overwhelming labor support that was given to the two Socialist parties, the mere concept of being an organization which claimed half a million members created in party ranks a confident and optimistic mood. Veteran Spartacists and newcomers from the Independents alike expected the party to follow henceforth a more dynamic, more activist course, and watched eagerly for any indication of growing Communist influence on the German domestic scene. Electoral gains In Prussia, Lippe-Detmold, Hamburg, and even an increased Communist vote in union elections of the Berlin woodworkers and railway workers were interpreted as signs of mounting party strength. The buoyant spirit of the rank and file was in sharp contrast to the continued cautious policies of Levi. The result was a progressive dissatisfaction with the Zentrale among the party membership, a development which in the weeks following the unification congress of December 20 led to an increase of independent activities on the part of local Communist organizations. By far the most serious effect of this trend was an increase in sporadic underground work.

It had been resolved at the Second World Congress of the Communist International that all Communist parties were immediately to form “illegal organizations . . . for the purpose of carrying out systematic underground work. . . .” This was presented as a defensive measure made necessary by reactionary persecutions of Communists everywhere. Underground organizations for illegal political work had existed in Germany ever since the war years, but they had originated with the Revolutionary Shop Steward movement, not with the Spartacists. In the summer of 1918 the Shop Stewards had come under the leadership of Ernst Daumig, who was then still a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party. The two organizations had an informal and non-committal relationship. The Revolutionary Shop Stewards were the earliest advocates of a system of workers’ councils, and in November 1918 were far more influential in creating them than were the Spartacists. Even before the revolution broke out they had begun to buy weapons and to form secret military detachments, referred to as Der Apparat ( the apparatus) and directed by Daumig in close cooperation with two other Shop Steward leaders, Emil Barth and Richard Muller. Der Apparat formed the model for future Communist underground organizations. After the November revolution and the founding of the KPD, such Communist underground organizations sprang up haphazardly throughout Germany but remained without effective coordination and control from the Zentrale in Berlin. During the proletarian uprising in the Ruhr region in March and April 1920, the police discovered in several local party offices blueprints for a red army and other documents pertaining to Communist military plans. Whether the organizations responsible for these materials were offshoots of the old Daumig apparatus, or whether they were the more recent creations of local KPD cells is impossible to say. But on no occasion between 1918 and 1920 was the role of Communist underground organizations of vital importance, because, lacking central direction, they were weak and ineffective

Communist underground work intensified after unification with the left-wing Independents. Two principal illegal “Apparate” were created prior to 1921, an N-group (Nachrichtenapparat) for intelligence work, and an M-group (Militarapparat) intended to train cadres of Communist fighters. Both groups had the additional mission of maintaining liaison with Russian agents passing illegally through Germany. The formation of these groups was in accord-ance with the directives of the Second World Congress, which the party was obligated to obey. There is no indication, however, that they functioned efficiently, or that they were effectively supervised and coordinated by the Zentrale while Levi was still its chairman. Moreover, basic disagreement existed between the Zentrale and the party’s underground on what the functions of the illegal groups were to be. The latter stressed the need for storing weapons and ammunition for future use, while the Zentrale tried to divert the conspiratorial ambitions of the would-be underground fighters into relatively harmless channels. This was done by forming them into study groups on military theory and by using them as guards at party meetings. But it was in the nature of the situation that the restraining efforts made by the leadership met with only limited success. Local Communist underground organizations frequently acted on their own initiative and, as was inevitable, incidents occurred which aroused the suspicion of the German authorities that the KPD was secretly but actively preparing for revolution. On January 19, 1921, Prussian police raided Communist offices in Essen, Dusseldorf, Elberfeld, and Luenen, near Dortmund, arested a number of Communist leaders, and confiscated party files.

On the basis of what Dr. Robert Weismann, Prussian State Commissioner for Safeguarding Public Security, termed “partial confessions,” and after an examination of the captured material, Weismann reported to his superiors that he had discovered evidence for the existence of a red army. Its headquarters, the report said, was in Berlin, and several subordinate command posts (Kommandobe-horden) were in western and central Germany. Weismann claimed to have found proof beyond doubt that the organization was designed to overthrow, by force, government and constitution: its ultimate objective was to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. On February 3, 1921, State Commissioner Dr. Weismann made another discovery. This one involved the Soviet Mission in Berlin, headed by Victor Kopp. It appears that staff members of this mission were engaged in a series of occupations totally unconnected with their official duty of negotiating with the Germans for the exchange and repatriation of prisoners of war. A number of copied documents, which had found their way into Weismann’s office, contained strong indications that the Soviet Mission was involved in smuggling arms and explosives, furthering Communist propaganda, and financing Communist underground activities in Germany and other parts of Europe. Later in the month, raids on Communist party offices in Magdeburg, Stendal, and Frankfurt am Main led to the arrest of several local KPD functionaries. Dynamite, arms, and other military equipment had been found.

Alarmed by these ominous discoveries, a number of German, and particularly Prussian officials became firmly convinced that the KPD was preparing for an uprising sometime in the spring. Throughout the first two months of 1921, rumors of a red underground army caused particular concern in official quarters. State Commissioner Weismann maintained in his report of January 20 that the KPD was directly supporting the formation of such an army. His assertion was based on documents found during raids on the party offices in the Rhineland. But either because the evidence proved too inconclusive, or because the Zentrale habitually (and perhaps not always untruthfully) denied all knowledge of these uncovered plots, Weismann refrained from taking statewide action against the party as a whole. He continued instead to rely on preventive measures, keeping the party’s activities under constant surveillance in the expectation that sooner or later local organizations would become careless enough to lay themselves open to police raids. Thus, despite their suspicions of Communist intentions, the authorities took no steps to arrest the Zentrale. Levi was allowed to travel abroad to attend the Leghorn conference and, understandably enough, nothing was done about the delicate problem posed by Victor Kopp’s Soviet Mission. How correct were the appraisals concerning the threat of an armed Communist insurrection that were voiced by various German officials early in 1921? Ironically enough, no specific plans for such an uprising existed prior to March of that year; and when the uprising did occur, unprepared, improvised, and absolutely unorganized, no red army materialized even in central Germany, the heart of the insurgent region. This is not to say that the KPD was a peaceful club. Nor does it mean that among the German Communists there were not some who seriously advocated a revolutionary offensive at the earliest possible opportunity. But dedication to the principle of revolution and actual preparation for such an event are not the same, and while the KPD never denied that revolution was its ultimate aim, no practical measures to implement it seem to have been taken by the Zentrale, certainly not while Levi was still its chairman. The plots which the German authorities discovered during January and February were examples of the same naïve and irresponsible “putschist” attitude which since the days of Luxemburg and Liebknecht had made it so hard for the party leadership to control the radical elements, especially on the local level. Moreover, the tendency to indulge in cloak and dagger games was hard to block after the ECCI had made underground work by all Communist parties mandatory. But the government officials who sounded the alarm and predicted bloodshed in the near future can hardly be blamed for being misled by overenthusiastic Communist busybodies. Only when the insurrection finally came, at Easter, and apparently justified the most dire predictions of the German security agencies, did it become evident that the KPD had acted on impulse and faith, without benefit of either organization or preparation.

The various steps which led to the March uprising are even today a matter of controversy. Whoever wants to reconstruct the complex and involved circumstances must take into consideration that both the Communists and the various government representatives have tried to obscure many of the issues in their respective accounts. To this must be added that official Communist interpretation moved through several phases before the final version was adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1921. According to this version, which is still upheld today, the March uprising was the result of calculated provocation of the workers by the Prussian government. Because it contained a few grains of truth, this formula proved to be the most feasible way in which a number of very inconvenient facts could be left unexplained in official Communist annals, past and present.

The key factor that made a Communist insurrection possible in the first place was the change in leadership of the Zentrale. Heinrich Brandler, the new chairman, was a simple and pedestrian man whose intellectual qualities were overshadowed by most of his more sophisticated colleagues, especially Ernst Meyer, Paul Frolich, and August Thalheimer. Levi had led the party without paying too much attention to views which did not coincide with his, thereby alienating large segments of the party, but Brandler went to the other extreme and too often accepted the opinions of others as his own. He had proved his mettle in the past in trade-union work, and during the proletarian uprisings that followed in the wake of the Kapp Putsch he acted as a capable though cautious commander of the armed Saxon workers. But now he had assumed a much greater responsibility, ant he was to show before long how difficult it was to live up to it.

It soon became apparent that the switch in the Communist high command caused a great deal of consternation within the party. Although Levi had been a controversial figure from the first to the last day that he served as chairman of the Zentrale, he still commanded the allegiance of many party members who saw in him the heir and disciple of Rosa Luxemburg, and who respected his ability even when they did not care for his personality. The fact that Zetkin, Brass, Daumig, and Hoffmann, some of them old war-horses who had won renown in the prewar SPD, had declared their solidarity with Levi created additional unrest and uncertainty in party circles. Thus the new Brandler Zentrale faced a difficult situation from the start. On the one hand Moscow, where Levi’s cavalier attitude toward revolution had incurred strong disapproval, wanted the German party to adopt a more vigorous policy, although what exactly was expected of the KPD remained for the time being uncertain. On the other hand, the resignation of the Levi faction had aggravated rather than eliminated the internal crisis of the party. How could Moscow’s expectations be met when the Communist leadership was divided on the principal issue of the day, the prospects for a proletarian revolution in Germany? On this point all factions disagreed. While it was generally recognized, in a vague and hazy way, that the Communists as the vanguard of the proletariat had to win influence over the masses in order to lead them to victory, the propitiousness of the moment as well as the tactics to be applied toward this end remained constant subjects of controversy among the party hierarchy.

Up to the moment when the Levi Zentrale resigned, the views of the party’s right wing had determined policy and set the course. While its spokesmen had admitted to the presence of “objective” factors which favored revolution, particularly rising unemployment, the threatened financial collapse of the state, and the growing misery of the masses, they had maintained that such “subjective” factors as the relative strength of the Communists vis-à-vis the state, and the absence of a genuine revolutionary spirit among German labor, offset the aspects favorable for a successful revolutionary movement. The right wing, under Levi’s guidance, had advocated that for the moment the only feasible slogan which the party could employ with any hope of success was that of “Alliance with Soviet Russia.” Levi thought this slogan particularly opportune in view of the growing tension between Germany and the Western Allies, a theory which he elaborately defended before and after the March uprising. In April 1921 Levi wrote: “With the Paris demands [Diktat] the German Reich entered upon a new, acute crisis, and this acute crisis, as was self-evident, had to be utilized for an Aktion. . . . The former Zentrale accepted the slogan [Alliance with Soviet Russia] . . . unanimously. . . . At the first sign of crisis it [the KPD] marched forward with the corresponding slogan . .. [and] this slogan—`Alliance with Soviet Russia’—had to become, of course, the leitmotif of all Communist propaganda during the weeks preceding the actual crisis. . . . We were convinced that this common struggle . . . would for the first time really close the ranks of the party.”

Whatever Levi may have meant with his vague reference to an Aktion in the event of possible conflict between Germany and the West, he had certainly not visualized a putsch. This is evident from his own interpretation: “During times of crisis when the masses are in a state of political turmoil . . . the Communist party has the duty to show a positive way out of the present dangers. The slogans of the V.K.P.D. must not be humdrum, everyday slogans, but must issue directly from any given crisis. . . . Such a slogan can only be `Alliance with Soviet Russia’. . . . It had been issued as a concrete slogan, i.e. one which could also be immediately realized by the bourgeois government, and at the same time could guide the proletariat in its struggle for the fulfilment of these demands.”

In short, the party’s right wing set its hopes upon a possible conflict between Germany and the Western Allies, a conflict which might lead to a Russo-German alliance. How exactly the German Communists were to profit from such an alliance Levi never made clear. What he did make clear was his determination not to permit rash actions to anticipate events, but to wait for an international crisis, and meanwhile to prepare the proletariat for a war in which the Western powers would be faced by the Soviet Union and its ally—the German bourgeois republic!

It will be recalled that Levi’s views had evoked vehement criticism from the Left Opposition. In contrast to Levi and the majority of his colleagues in the Zentrale, the Berlin Left believed that a new revolutionary wave was in the offing, and that the party had to prepare its own members and as many non-Communist workers as possible for the event. On February 12 the Rote Fahne had published an article by Reuter-Friesland in which he had clearly enunciated the position of the Left.

“We were all of the opinion, up to now, that the German bourgeoisie is not oppressed, that the German bourgeoisie enjoys life, and that it counts on the fraternal support of the Entente imperialists while oppressing the German proletariat . . . ; it is exactly for this reason that we have made it our task to fight against every nationalist slogan. Let me remind you that the Communist party neither approved of the Versailles treaty, nor opposed it, but demanded the revolutionary solution of the world crisis. . . .

“For the time being, the German proletariat must first solve its mission in Germany. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!. . . . Let the German proletariat first break the resistance of this [bourgeois] society; let the German proletariat first secure possession of all factories and [other] enterprises; then we shall see how this struggle for liberation waged by the German workers will affect the proletariat of England, France . . . of the western countries. . . . We do not want contrived [an den Haaren herbeigezogen] measures designed to convince either the German workers or the Executive [of the Comintern] how active we are. We want to show the German working masses the clear, unequivocal, though difficult road to the German revolution.”

The conflicting opinions on party strategy were still a burning issue when Levi and his friends resigned, saddling the Brandler Zentrale with the thankless task of choosing a proper solution. It soon became apparent that the views of the Left were gaining ground. They did so despite the fact that this faction was not represented in the new Zentrale, and that its criticism of the right wing had been voted down in the same meeting which had culminated in the resignation of the Levi group. But the spokesmen of the left wing were also in control of the party’s strong and radical Berlin organization, which Reuter and two of his colleagues represented in the Central Committee. And since the Zentrale likewise had its headquarters in Berlin, it was constantly exposed to the influence of the Reuter-Fischer-Maslow triumvirate. After Levi and his friends were no longer in positions of authority, the Berliners had the field largely to themselves, and they made good use of their opportunity.

The Left tried hard to convince the new leadership that now was the time to show the German working class the road to the German revolution. This approach had in its favor the awareness of the new Zentrale that Moscow and large segments of the KPD expected German Communism to adopt a more vigorous approach toward its ultimate objective. Nevertheless, the underlying preconceptions held respectively by the Berliners and the Brandler Zentrale were fundamentally different. While Reuter, the most prominent figure of the Left, wanted the party prepared to make use of he new revolutionary wave which he sincerely anticipated, the Wandler Zentrale wanted to conjure up a revolutionary situation, even though few of its members shared Reuter’s optimistic view of the revolutionary wave on the horizon. They were primarily concerned to demonstrate that the KPD, under new management, would no longer be a do-nothing party, but a party of action, and that it would daringly lead the lethargic German workers out of the bondage of bourgeois capitalist exploitation. With the Communist mission thus formulated in theory, the sole remaining question was how to go about it in practice. To find the answer, the new party leaders began to scan the national and international scenes the hope that they would somehow, somewhere, find both an occasion and a justification for an Aktion.

During the first three months of 1921 the international situation was tense. The Allied conference which was held at Paris between January 24 and 29 had yielded some definite proposals for German reparation payments, and a German delegation was invited to come to London on March 1 to negotiate on the foundation laid by the Paris conference. Public opinion in Germany was unanimously hostile to the Paris decisions, and the German plenipotentiaries were not expected to display a very conciliatory attitude in London. This expectation proved to be correct, and the negotiations which began on March 1 ended in an impasse. An ultimatum to comply with Allied demands on reparations was rejected by Germany on March 7, and at 7 A.M. of the following day French troops occupied the cities of Duisburg, Thisseldorf, and Ruhrort in the Ruhr region. The situation was critical, and no rapid solution was in sight. The Allies remained firm, threatened that further sanctions might be applied, and demanded payment of twenty million gold marks by May 1. In addition, a new customs line was drawn along the Rhine, which cut off normal commercial intercourse between the Reich and its territory on the left bank of the river.

Difficulties between Germany and the Western Allies were intensified in the East by the approaching plebiscite in Upper Silesia, which was to determine where the German-Polish frontier would be drawn. Throughout 1920, and especially in August of that year, armed clashes between Poles and Germans had occurred sporadically along the disputed border region. The threat of new outbursts of violence remained constant. As the day of the plebiscite approached (March 20, 1921), tension mounted in Upper Silesia, partly because of renewed anti-German agitation in the Polish press. The situation was decidedly dangerous.

One domestic problem, Bavaria, flared up with fresh bitterness early in 1921. All attempts by the German government to make Bavaria disband her civil guards (Einwohnerwehren), particularly the controversial Orgesch, had failed. The Bavarians justified their obstinacy with the argument that the civil guards alone stood between the security of the population and Communist anarchy. On February 5, 1921, a conference of prime ministers from the individual German states (Lander) met in Berlin to discuss the whole sordid question once again. The Allied conference at Paris had issued a final injunction on January 29 under which the German government was instructed to enforce the disbanding of all paramilitary organizations inside the Reich by June 30, 1921. But despite the urgency of the matter, the conference of prime ministers reached no agreement. The central government insisted that the Allied demands would have to be met, and Bavaria’s Minister President von Kahr refused to comply. Kahr added that Bavaria would await the outcome of the London conference before making a decision. This stand was reaffirmed on February 8 by a council of the Bavarian ministry, and reiterated by Kahr before the Bavarian diet on February 17 and March 7. At this point the German government finally lost patience. Faced with Allied sanctions in the West on account of the reparations deadlock, and threatened by possible international complications arising from the Upper Silesian plebiscite, the government was determined to stave off additional trouble with the Allies by taking a firm stand on the civil guard issue. On March 12, a draft bill was introduced in the Reichsrat, the German upper house representing the individual states, which provided for general German disarmament in accordance with articles 177 and 178 of the peace treaty. The bill went to the Reichstag on March 14, was slightly revised in committee, and finally passed into law inn March 19, 1921. It was another two and a half months, however, before Bavaria finally admitted defeat and agreed to comply with time law. In the meantime, the issue continued to hang in the balance.”

The combination of domestic and foreign political problems which the republic faced by the end of February was indeed formidable—a fact which was not lost on the German Communists. But although they recognized the political potentials of the situation, they were so overwhelmed by what appeared to be a wealth of opportunities that they did not know how to deal with them. The Brandler Zentrale resembled a group of explorers at the edge of a vast wilderness, impatient to go, but undecided where to start and how to proceed. Thus in the absence of a clear and suitable plan the Communist leaders resorted to half-measures and improvisations. The program—if the muddle which resulted can be honored with this term—consisted merely of a formula which had served the KPD repeatedly, albeit ineffectually, in the past: strengthen the party, prepare it for action, and infuse revolutionary spirit into the German working class! But there was as yet no clear conception of what kind of action the party was to prepare, nor any clear idea as to what exactly it was to accomplish. In the absence of more substantial plans, the Zentrale restricted its activities for the moment to the dissemination of revolutionary propaganda to the masses, leaving the rest of its program to the future. In spite of the recent fiasco of the first Open Letter (January 8, 1921), the Zentrale, mindful of the fact that persistence was a virtue, published another manifesto in the Rote Fahne on March 4. The appeal was addressed “To the German Proletariat,” and began with the jeering observation that the diplomatic negotiations at London had led the German capitalists nowhere. Their surrender to the demands of the Entente powers was imminent, and the present negotiations had but one objective, to sell out German workers in order to reap benefits for German capitalists. The working class had only one alternative—the overthrow of the bourgeois government. No God was going to help the workers; they must help. themselves. Then the tone became shrill.

“The German working class faces once again an hour of destiny. Your fate will not be decided in London, but in Germany and by you.. . . The choice is yours. . . . You cannot evade this struggle. . . . Hesitate no longer. You have nothing to lose. Be resolved to take action. Demonstrate on Sunday [March 6], stir up all who are dilatory. March against your oppressors! Against the dual yoke of foreign and German exploiters! For the Communist reconstruction! Away with all bourgeois governments! For the rule of the working class! Alliance [Schutz-und Trutzbandnis] with Soviet Russia! Economic Union with Soviet Russia!”

This appeal elicited a letter from Paul Levi the following day. Directing himself to the Zentrale, the former party chairman called the appeal mere irresponsible propaganda, and its slogans unconvincing except to members of the KPD. He charged that the Zentrale had surrendered to the Berlin Left when the new line of propaganda was adopted. Instead of expounding highly unrealistic aims in the appeal, the Zentrale should have retained “Alliance with Soviet Russia” as its only slogan, without the other nonsense which at the moment could have no effect on most Germans. His letter closed with the words: “I see in the general attitude a weakness of the German Zentrale, the consequences of which I am as yet unable to foresee!”

This letter resulted in a meeting on March 8 in Berlin between the members of the Zentrale and the Communist Reichstag delegation, which included Levi and Zetkin. Levi’s account of this meeting is the only available source. According to him, all but one member of the Zentrale, Paul Frolich, proved amenable to his criticism of the most recent party line. Frolich defended the appeal, and demanded that once matters came to a head the party should issue the slogan: “Overthrow the Government and Elect Workers’ Councils.” Although no formal decision was taken on the matter, Levi left the conference apparently in the belief that he had convinced all members of the Zentrale, except Frolich, of the clumsiness and untimeliness of the party’s latest approach to revolution. He was soon to learn that he had been mistaken.

For in the first days of March, 1921, the German Communists received an unexpected visit. From the East appeared three emissaries of the ECCI, the Hungarians Bela Kun and Joseph Pepper, alias Pogany, and the Pole August Guralsky, alias Kleine. The latter two, it appears, kept discreetly in the background and left the transaction of business to Kun. After a short and unhappy career as leader of the Hungarian Communist revolt in 1919, Bela Kun had found a job and a home with the Executive Committee of the Third (Communist) International, where he soon made a name for himself by his unscrupulous tactics and extreme left-wing orientation. Sir Harold Nicolson, who met Kun in April 1919, has given a thumbnail sketch of the then triumphant revolutionary chief: “A little man of about 30: puffy white face and loose wet lips: shaven head: impression of red hair: shifty suspicious eyes: he has the face of a sulky and uncertain criminal.”‘ And now Kun had come with his fellow travelers to Germany in order to launch the KPD on the road to revolution.

The situation which they encountered upon their arrival proved very favorable for their plans. The leaders of the KPD, eager to prove their mettle but at a loss how to proceed, were easy prey for Kun who, in their eyes at least, represented the will of the Kremlin. Whether the party’s appeal of March 4 was the handiwork of the “Turkestaner,” as Levi called them, is doubtful; it is certain only that no final decision was taken during the first two weeks of March. Kun used this time to convince the Zentrale that the KPD must exploit the unique combination of national and international crises for an action of its own. The party, Kun urged, must take the offensive even if it should have to resort to provocative measures. Once an offensive was launched, two to three million German workers would follow the lead of the Communists. Kun was generous with optimistic estimates, and his enthusiasm captured the imagination of most members of the Zentrale. By March 10 Kun felt sufficiently sure of his success to reveal his ideas to Clara Zetkin, who was so shocked by what she had heard that she immediately informed Paul Levi and told him that she refused to have any further conversations with Kun unless witnesses were present. On March 14 Levi himself talked to Kun and was treated to the same grandiloquent schemes which had outraged Clara Zetkin a few days earlier. One might have expected that the former party chairman would have tried his utmost to block Kun’s ventures then and there, that he would have used whatever authority his opinion still carried to beat the alarm, to warn his comrades not to listen to a tempter whose ineptness had been so clearly revealed during the Hungarian revolution of 1919. But if Levi did so he has left no record of his attempts. Perhaps he refused to take Kun’s revolutionary overtures seriously; perhaps he put his faith in the sanity of his former colleagues or, conscious of his political eclipse, fatalistically shrugged off any further responsibility. -Whatever his reasons may have been, Levi resolved to take a vacation and, shortly after his talk with Kun, departed for Vienna, with Italy as his ultimate destination.

On March 16 and 17, 1921, the Zentrale met with the Central Committee in Berlin for a high-level conference, to determine what strategy the KPD was to adopt in the immediate future. Brandler presided and delivered the keynote address, which began with an analysis of the political situation as he saw it. The analysis presented the assembled functionaries and the Communist newspaper editors from every German district with a number of amazing statements. In addition to a sweeping and rapid recapitulation of all existing crises at home and abroad, which ranged from the effects of the London conference and the Upper Silesian plebiscite to the counter-revolutionary plans of the Orgesch, Brandler outdid himself by conjuring up the acute possibility of war between the United States and Great Britain. The new party chairman, perhaps affected by Kun’s optimism, stated that the chances of conflicts along Germany’s borders were nine to one, and that in the event of their outbreak the influence of the KPD would extend beyond the four to five million [sic!] Communists.

“I maintain that we have in the Reich today two to three million non-Communist workers who can be influenced by our Communist organization, who will fight under our flag . . . even in an offensive action [started by the KPD]. If my view is correct, then the situation obligates us to deal with the existing tensions at home and abroad no longer passively; we must no longer exploit . . . [them] merely for agitation, but we are obligated … to interfere through Aktionen in order to change matters in our sense”.

The speech was followed by a general discussion in which the members of the Zentrale voiced their support of Brandler’s theses. The most enthusiastic endorsement came from Paul Frolich, who called the projected plan of action a “complete break with the past” because the Communists, up to then always on the defensive, had finally reached the point when they would have to challenge fate by way of revolution. Frolieh elaborated that “we must now . . . go over to the offensive. . . . We can aggravate the existing [international] complications tremendously by calling on the masses in the Rhineland to go on strike, thereby sharpening . . . the prevailing differences between the Entente and the German government.” In Bavaria the party’s task would be provocation of the civil guards, in order to stir up trouble in that region.

Similar sentiments were voiced by Ernst Reuter-Friesland, who represented the Berlin organization in the Central Committee. He told the conference that the party must take action now, even if the Communists should find themselves fighting alone in the coming struggle. But the activists were not unopposed. Dissenting voices were raised, one of them by Heinrich Malzahn, a union official, member of the Reichstag, and an adherent of the Levi faction. Malzahn, unimpressed by Brandler’s rhetoric which struck him as exceedingly hazy, suggested that it was inadvisable to sanction blindly any future commitment by the party for a revolutionary offensive.” But his objections and those raised by like-minded sceptics carried no weight. The opponents of the suggested policy of action were hesitant and irresolute in their attempts to combat the bravado of the assembled party leaders. “The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” wrote William Butler Yeats in 1919, and his words well sum up the atmosphere in which the KPD leadership in March 1921 decided to embark upon revolution. Kun and his friends, though not personally in evidence during the conference, ultimately carried the day. In a series of resolutions it was decided to alert the party and to work toward a further increase of tensions wherever feasible. The party was to engage in armed struggles as soon as the combination of crisis atmosphere and Communist agitation produced an outbreak of violence anywhere. The overthrow of the existing German federal government was to be the first objective of the projected operation. “Overthrow the Government” was to serve as a fighting slogan in conjunction with the familiar demand, “Alliance with Soviet Russia.” Finally, in order not to jeopardize needlessly the success of the whole scheme, the conference resolved to make every effort to postpone the Aktion until after Easter week, a period unsuitable for strikes since factories were closed.

The decision was reached, the plans were laid, but the party’s freedom of action was lost even before the conference voted to adjourn. In her last editorial, published in the Rote Fahne on January 13, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg had warned that “the revolution just does not operate of its own accord, on an open battlefield, and according to a plan cleverly laid by ‘strategists.’ Its opponents can also take the initiative; moreover, they usually avail themselves of it more often than does the revolution.” Brandler, his colleagues, and Kun and company were soon to learn how true her observation was. While the conference was still in session, on March 17, the Communist leaders received word that the Social Democratic Oberpräsident (approx.: governor) of the Prussian province of Saxony, Otto Horsing, had the day before issued a proclamation announcing his intention to dispatch police forces into the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts of the province. The proclamation stated that the purpose of this measure was the restoration of order and security in that strike-ridden industrial region. The occasion for which the Zentrale had been waiting so eagerly had arrived, but prematurely, and from an unexpected quarter. All of a sudden the Communists were forced to face an unforeseen situation in which their opponents had taken the initiative.

* * *

Situated in the heart of Germany, the Prussian province of Saxony and the neighboring states of Thuringia and Saxony formed an economic unit which in industrial importance ranked with the Ruhr region and Upper Silesia. Prussian Saxony was the home of the Leuna Works which produced gasoline and chemicals; it was also a mining center where lignite, potash, and copper slate were dug. It rated high in steel production and had a number of processing industries.

The region was densely populated by industrial workers and had already seen labor trouble before the war. In January 1910, during a strike wave in the Mansfeld coal district, the regular army was sent in to maintain order. The district of Halle, one of six regional organizations which as early as 1913 belonged to the left wing of the SPD, was expelled by that party in the fall of 1916, and in the spring of 1917 participated in the founding of the Independent Social Democratic Party. After the November revolution, radicalism in the region became endemic. The rapidly expanding lignite mining and chemical industries attracted many newcomers, especially from the western provinces, after Germany, under the terms of the peace treaty, lost the large hard coal deposits of Alsace-Lorraine and Eupen-Malmedy. The new arrivals included a good number of rootless and shiftless people, many of whom had been toughened, if not brutalized, by years of trench warfare. Apart from these local conditions, the region shared with the rest of the country the political confusion, economic dislocation, and the disillusionment and de-moralization which followed in the wake of the lost war. Itinerant agitators, roving from mining town to mill town, addressed audiences of disgruntled and hungry workers who listened eagerly to anyone who offered to improve their miserable lot. Immediately after the war the region became a stronghold of the USPD, but, as economic conditions deteriorated further, the Communists gained around. In the elections to the Prussian diet on February 20, 1921, in the electoral district of Halle-Merseburg, the KPD obtained 197,113 votes as compared to 70,340 for the SPD, and 74,754 for I he USPD.

The Prussian government realized as early as 1919 that the province of Saxony, notably the Halle district, was a center of economic and political unrest. Wildcat strikes, clashes between workers and police, and thefts in factories and on the farm lands occurred with Increasing frequency. After the Kapp Putsch, a state of siege was proclaimed in the province and was not lifted until September 1920. In the following month the Prussian Minister of the Interior Carl Severing suggested to the Obärprasident of Prussian Saxony, Otto Horsing, that a drastic reorganization of the police in the troubled region was essential if order and security were to be restored. It was also known that the population had surrendered only a small number of arms after the upheavals which had followed the Kapp Putsch, and the existence of undiscovered arms caches was a constant source of concern to the Prussian authorities.

The situation continued to deteriorate during the winter months of 1920-1921. The Prussian government received complaints from factory owners and farmers who charged that thefts were increasing. All attempts to prevent theft by means of private plant detectives, bodily searches, and stricter supervision were answered by spontaneous strikes, beating of guards, sabotage, and other terroristic acts. Conditions were particularly tense in the Leuna Works near Merseburg, and in the Eisleben copper slate works. Both industrial plants were harassed by strikes at the end of January and the beginning of February, 1921. At Leuna the issue was a demand for shorter hours, at Eisleben resistance to the presence of plant detectives. Both strikes were settled, apparently by promises on the part of management which satisfied the workers.

In view of the constant stream of complaints which reached the office of the Obärprdsident, Horsing called a conference at Merscburg for February 12 to which he invited the Landrdte, mayors, and chief representatives of industry from the region. The discussions at the conference revealed a gloomy picture, and Horsing was particularly shocked by reports that farmers had their manure carted away under cover of darkness. It is uncertain whether the decision to send a police expedition into the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts was reached on that occasion or only on February 28, when Horsing called another conference with the same participants. In any event, plans for such a measure were definitely made in February. The original plan called for the occupation of Eisleben by 300 policemen, and of Hettstedt by 200. The occupation was not to commence be-fore March 19 in order not to jeopardize the plebiscite in Upper Silesia, scheduled for March 20. Horsing was afraid that an operation at an earlier date might harm the German cause in the plebiscite by reducing rail transportation needed to take voters to the region, and by prompting possible sympathy strikes on the part of railway personnel.

It seems that up to this point Horsing considered the pacification of his bailiwick as strictly his own responsibility, to be handled by local officials and local police forces. Though he kept the Prussian government abreast of developments, Horsing was apparently not eager to have his superiors interfere in what he believed were his own affairs. There was in addition a distinct difference of opinion as to what exactly the projected police occupation was to accomplish, and against whom it was to be primarily directed. Horsing went out of his way to emphasize the non-political nature of the disturbances, and before and after the uprisings in central Germany insisted that all his efforts were directed toward restoring the authority of the state (in this case, Horsing’s authority), which was being undermined by criminal elements and trouble makers.

In contrast to Horsing’s parochial views, the Prussian State Commissioner for Safeguarding Public Security, Dr. Weismann, saw central Germany primarily as a political powder-keg which at any moment could be blown sky high by Communist conspirators. But Weismann was in a difficult position. His suspicions were largely hosed on intuition, a fact which he admitted after the uprising, and ns he was unable to prove that left-wing radicals in Prussian Saxony were planning a revolt, he could not convince either Severing or Horsing of the validity of his point of view.

Severing’s ideas on how to handle the unruly province differed from both Horsing’s and Weismann’s. Severing was willing to allow the Oberpräsident a free hand as long as unrest remained restricted to Prussian Saxony and did not acquire political overtones. Thus he kept in touch with developments and, although he was unimpressed by Weismann’s somber predictions of a putsch, he did not rule out the possibility that the Communists would sooner or later exploit  the tensions in the Mansfeld region. In such a case, Severing was determined to “clear the air” by every means at the disposal of the Prussian government. The moment when Severing decided to interfere arrived on March 13, 1921. On that day, an unsuccessful attempt was made to dynamite the Siegessaule (victory column), a famous and venerable land-mark in the heart of Berlin. Twelve pounds of high explosives, packed in a cardboard box, were discovered by visitors to the monument on the morning of March 13. Only a defective fuse had prevented damage, and possibly casualties.

A number of East German historians, who in February 1956 conducted a colloquium on the March uprising, have once again proffered a charge, which dates back to 1921, that the attempt against the Siegessaule was part of a deliberate plot by the Prussian government to implicate the Communists, and that the dynamite was in fact placed by police spies. Since this charge constitutes the key argument on which the Communists, then and now, have based their interpretation of the origins of the March uprising, it will be necessary to dwell briefly on the bomb plot.

When the dynamite was discovered, 50,000 marks were offered as a reward to anyone who could lead the police to the persons who had placed it. In addition, a thorough description of the bomb and its wrappings appeared in the newspapers. The description stated that six kilograms of dynamite had been placed in a cardboard box marked “Dr. Oetkers Saucenpulver,” that the color of the box was brown, and that the detonation caps were marked “Anhaltische Sprengwerke.” On March 21, thus after the police occupation in central Germany had begun, the Berlin police arrested eleven persons, some of whom carried membership cards of the KAPD. These men confessed that they placed the bomb. The explosion, according to the testimony of some, was intended to intimidate the population, initiate a new revolutionary wave and, incidentally, mark the first anniversary of the Kapp Putsch. None of the prisoners revealed the identity of the man who had given them their orders. None of them was a member of the KPD.

There is little doubt that this project was neither conceived nor executed by any political party, but was a typical example of “individual terror” on the part of revolutionary cranks, who abounded in Germany during the postwar period. According to the account of Max Hoelz, one of the most colorful revolutionaries of this period, the idea of blowing up the monument came from a freewheeling radical named Ferry, alias Hering. Ferry met Hoelz in Berlin (no date is indicated, except that Hoelz went to Berlin in December 1920), and asked for money with which to buy explosives necessary for his plot. He promised in return to manufacture bombs and hand grenades for Hoelz. The deal went through, to the satisfaction of both individuals concerned. The Siegessaule incident convinced Severing of the need for a large-scale, state-supported operation in central Germany. Since all indications pointed toward the plot’s having originated in the province of Saxony, Severing dispatched police agents of the criminal detachment to the region, with instructions to investigate whether dynamite had been stolen there. He also ordered police reinforcements from Berlin and other places to be alerted for the projected operation, and arranged with Horsing that another conference be called at Merseburg on March 17. One day before the conference was held, Horsing published his proclamation to the workers in the central German industrial districts. It was a lengthy appeal which began with a description of diverse lawless acts that of late had increased in number and severity. Wildcat strikes, robbery, looting, and terrorist activities by roving armed bands headed the list of offenses. The damages done to agricultural and industrial property were mentioned, and also bodily injuries inflicted on guards who had tried to prevent theft and looting. The appeal called attention to the fact that workers who had refused to go on strike had been threatened, and at times brutally beaten. Furthermore, lawfully elected factory councils had been replaced on many occasions by so-called action committees. Horsing pointed out that his impression during a recent tour of inspection had been that these outrages were not instigated by Communists, but by “international criminals” who were posing as Communists and were using the most absurd slogans in their attempts to stir up trouble.

The appeal closed as follows:

“In the interest of labor, agriculture, industry, commerce, and trade I have given orders that strong contingents of police forces will be sent into many towns of the industrial region within the next few days. . . . The police forces will treat with equal firmness both the criminals themselves and all those who should attempt to prevent the forces from carrying out their duty, offer open opposition, or try to incite the population . . . in an effort to hinder the police forces in the execution of their mission.”

The conference on March 17 was attended by Horsing, Severing, Weismann, the highest administrative official of the district of Merseburg, Regierungsprasident von Gersdorff, and representatives of all political parties except the Communists. The discussion was primarily concerned with strategy, and two days later, March 19, the police occupation began.

Who, then, bore the largest share of responsibility for the ensuing disorders? The Communists put the entire blame on the Prussian government in general, and on Severing in particular, charging that lie workers of central Germany were to be provoked into active opposition, so that Severing could crack down and settle accounts with Ilse Communists. But the proponents of this theory conveniently disregard a number of relevant facts. They discount, or even deny, the role played by Bela Kun and his fellow “Turkestaner,” who spent the first half of March trying to sell their plan for a revolution to the Zentrale of the KPD. They also misrepresent the tenor of the debate at the Central Committee meeting on March 16 and 17, falsify the reasons why the conference was called in the first place, and do not mention either the Zentrale’s intention to prepare for an uprising before Horsing’s appeal became known to the delegates, or the objections that were raised against these plans by some of the functionaries present. Although the fact is mentioned that one faction at the conference favored a theory of revolutionary offensive, no attempt has been made to point out the effect of this theory on the decisions taken by the party caucus on March 17. True, the uprising which the KPD originally conceived was to have taken place after the Easter holidays, and, according to the party theoreticians, was to have grown out of international complications. What happened instead was that the Prussian government unwittingly anticipated the insurrectionist intentions of the Zentrale by its decision to execute a police occupation of Prussian Saxony. Taken unawares, the Communists, for reasons which will be discussed shortly, allowed themselves to become involved in a struggle at a time and place not of their own choosing, and under circumstances that favored the Prussian government, which had seized the initiative.

It is conceivable that the March uprising would not have occurred at all if the bomb plot against the Siegessdule had not prompted the Prussian government to make a show of force. Persuaded by Severing, Horsing revised his earlier plan to deal with the disturbances in the province exclusively with his own police forces. The area of occupation, which originally was to be confined to the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts, was extended to include the Merseburg area as well, and the number of police contingents was doubled by calling on out-side reinforcements. These measures gave the operation from the beginning an appearance quite out of proportion to its alleged objective, the suppression of a local crime wave. The man behind these changes was Severing. There is good reason to believe that after the Siegessdule plot Severing, and through him Horsing, were converted to Weismann’s point of view that the series of incidents discovered during the early part of 1921 were indicative of a contemplated Communist putsch. They happened to be right, but the indications on which the Prussian officials based their assumptions were largely incidental and not part of the actual plan which the KPD finally adopted on March 17.

Despite their suspicions, Severing, Horsing, and Weismann upheld the official version that the police occupation of Prussian Saxony had no political motives, but was entirely a measure designed to stamp out crime. In view of the fact that the Communists were the only political party not represented at the Merseburg conference of March 17, coupled with the large-scale preparations for the his pending move, the argument is unconvincing. It was nevertheless maintained after the uprising had been crushed, except for a revealing remark made by Severing. He was questioned by a member of the investigation committee appointed by the Prussian diet as to whether it was true that the police forces employed in Saxony were intentionally kept below the numbers required for a quick operation lest “the thunderstorm would not have broken, leaving the atmosphere sultry.” Severing denied the intention but agreed that the relative weakness of the police proved a blessing in disguise, because it brought the simmering insurrection out into the open where it could be fought. In his memoirs, Severing went even further by adding that “it was not, after all, the objective of the police action merely to punish the misdeeds of a few evildoers, but to pacify the region by means of a thorough disarmament action (Entwaffnungsaktion).” To this extent, and only to this extent, can the Communist charge of government “provocation” be eonsidered justified. But it must also be kept in mind that the Prussian officials were leaning over backward not to challenge the KPD openly, going so far as to maintain the legal fiction of an operation against crime. Under these circumstances, the Communist leaders could easily have ignored Horsing’s appea1. That they chose not to do so was to cost the life of many a comrade from the rank and file.


June 11, 2018

Is China Socialist?

Filed under: China,economics — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

Donald Trump asking Xi Jinping for Karl Marx reading recommendations, especially anything on “spiritual pursuit”

Four days ago Michael Roberts posted an article titled “China workshop: challenging the misconceptions” that raised a number of interesting questions:

What are the reasons for China’s phenomenal growth in the last 40 years and can it last? What is the nature of the Chinese economy: is it capitalist or not? What explains under Xi the new emphasis on studying Marxism in China’s universities? Is China’s export and investment expansion abroad imperialist or not? How will the trade war between the US and China pan out?

The workshop invited Roberts and a number of Chinese economists to speak on these questions, all of whom—including Roberts—denied that China was capitalist. It was sponsored by the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, universally referred to nowadays as SOAS ostensibly because of the stigma attached to a word like Oriental. In the first session, Professor Dic Lo, an economist at SOAS who was the moving force behind this gathering, spoke alongside one Zhu Andong,  who is the Vice Dean at the School of Marxism at Tsinghua University. School of Marxism? Jeez, if I had kids, that’s where I’d want to them to study.

Or maybe not.

Dic Lo chastised people like Martin Hart-Landsberg, Paul Burkett, David Harvey, and Minqi Li for describing China as “neoliberal capitalist”, where growth is based on the “Foxconn” model—you know, the immense factory that turns out electronic parts and that is so oppressive that there was an epidemic of suicides.

For his part, the Vice Dean of the School of Marxism concurred with Dic Lo and offered supporting evidence for the country’s anticapitalist bona fides–the official support for the study of Marxism in Chinese universities like his. Well, only last month Xi Jinping stated that Marxism is “totally correct” for China so who are we to question that? He told all party members at a big gathering celebrating the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to study his writings as a “way of life” and “spiritual pursuit”.

Ironically, the Vice Dean of the School of Marxism had a different take on Minqi Li at one time. In 2005, they co-authored a paper titled “Neoliberalism, Global Imbalances, and Stages of Capitalist Development” that described the U.S. and China as the two main engines of neoliberal growth. Could it be possible that such a paper might have reflected youthful radicalism that has been tamed through the inevitable process of a career path in the Chinese academy, even if the top roosts are emblazoned with the image of Karl Marx?

Dic Lo got in the face of those ultra-leftists like Martin Hart-Landsberg, throwing down the gauntlet:

All the talk from the left, said Lo, was about political repression, labour exploitation, inequality or Chinese ‘imperialism’. But then how to explain China’s phenomenal growth and success in taking over 850m people out of poverty (as defined by the World Bank) and reaching national output second only to the US. China doubles real living standards every 13 years. It now takes the US and Europe 50 years and Japan even longer. Is this just fake or illusory and if not, how can this ‘capitalist’ and ‘imperialist’ economy have bucked the trend, when the record of all other capitalist economies (advanced or ‘emerging’) can show no such success? “How can it be possible, in our times, for a late-developing nation to move up the world political-economic hierarchy to become imperialist? Can anyone on the left answer this question?”

Probably without realizing it, Lo answered his own question by asking us to “explain China’s phenomenal growth and success in taking over 850m people out of poverty.” It should be obvious that this phenomenal growth comes from the massive capitalist development along the southeastern coast in cities like Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). By opening up such cities to foreign investment and drawing in people from the countryside through land privatization, the country became a showcase for capitalist modernization.

In fact, the country that was a counter-revolutionary dagger aimed at China enjoyed the same kind of “take-off”. I speak of Taiwan that was home to Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT that dreamt of overthrowing communism on the mainland. This chart should give you an idea of how dramatic the poverty reduction was.

It appeared in an article titled “Openness, Growth and Poverty: The Case of Taiwan” that appeared in the 2007 World Development journal. It makes one wonder whether, despite all the hostility between Taiwan and the mainland, that perhaps Deng Xiaoping consciously emulated its success. The article states:

Like many developing countries, poverty was widespread in Taiwan during the early postwar years. After the government decisively reoriented its development strategy from import substitution toward export promotion at the end of the 1950s, the exceptional economic growth has not only brought with it the well-known record of income distribution, but has also resulted in rapid poverty reduction. What Taiwan has experienced in the past four decades suggests that there is a close link between openness, economic growth and poverty reduction, and thus constitutes an ideal case for a country-specific study …

But does rapid capitalist growth, even when combined with generous social services as is the case in both China and Taiwan, serve as a benchmark for progress toward socialism? In China, there is lots of personal freedom. Unlike Iran, nobody gives a crap what clothes you wear or whether you walk down the street like a drunken sailor on shore leave. But like Iran, China will brook no challenge to the ruling party, which is closely tied to what Bernie Sanders calls the “billionaire class”. If workers want to press for higher wages and a relaxation of the killing pace at Foxconn, what happens? I recommend China Labor Bulletin to keep track of these encounters, especially the article titled “Swimming against the Tide: A short history of labour conflict in China and the government’s attempts to control it.” Among the findings:

Another report in 2009 by Hong Kong activist group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) showed that the 6,000 employees of the Tianyu Toy Company in Dongguan typically worked three hours overtime each day. During peak production times they worked four hours overtime a day and some workers complained they sometimes had to work through the night, with the longest continuous shift lasting 28 hours. Worse still, if the shift went past 9:30 pm, the company refused to pay overtime. And if employees refused to do overtime, they were fined 50 yuan. To prevent workers from walking out, the company held back a month and a half’s wages and, if workers resigned without their manager’s approval, they would lose one month’s wages.

Naturally, this kind of super-exploitation produces investment capital that can continue to build new factories that act as a magnet for the rural poor. When a peasant who earns about $100 per year loses his land due to modern day primitive accumulation, he could get a job at Tianyu Toy Company making $100 per month. Is this dramatic increase in wealth a step on the road to socialism?

Dic Lo’s articles are mostly written in non-Marxist journals and are meant to refute his neoliberal adversaries, who—compared to him—would accelerate the economic practices so that they would be line with those that prevail in India or Russia today. Basically, he is arguing from the standpoint of what used to be called a “mixed economy”.

You have to go back to Historical Materialism in 2001 for the one article he submitted to a Marxist journal, in this instance a special issue on the Asian financial crisis that began in Thailand in 1997. You can find an article in the same issue by the notorious ultra-leftist Paul Burkett titled “Crisis and Recovery in East Asia: The Limits of Capitalist Development”.

Lo’s article is titled “China After East Asian Developmentalism” and is much less technical that those written by him for a-list economics journals. In contrast to the smoking rubble of Thailand, Indonesia et al, China was barely impacted in the early 2000s. While he acknowledges that China shared some of the same “marketization” features as the Asian Tigers, it was protected from the financial superstorm by policies unique to China. Neither, however, have much to do with socialism.

The first was plain vanilla Keynsianism:

The East Asian financial and economic crisis, in conjunction with the steadily slowing down of economic growth in the domestic front, prompted the Chinese state leadership to adopt four major categories of anti-crisis policies from early 1998. The first was a range of welfare-state policies, which included raising the benefits for the retired and the unemployed, raising the pay of public-sector employees, and lengthening the paid holidays of workers. All these were aimed at reversing the trend of stagnant consumption expansion. The second category encompassed several Keynesian-type fiscal packages for expanding investment demand. These packages were financed by debt issuing on unprecedented scales. The third category encompassed policy measures to revitalise the state sector.

The revitalized state sector was embodied in the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) that for Michael Roberts, Dic Lo and all the other speakers at the SOAS workshop see as constituting the all-important socialist sector.

Let’s take a look at one of these socialistic SOE’s, the Anbang Insurance Group that attracted a lot of publicity this year for its bid to invest millions of dollars in a building owned by Jared Kushner. The largest shareholders are state-owned car maker Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp and Sinopec, a state-owned oil company Sinopec.

Of course, trying to figure out who exactly “owns” Anbang is not easy. Like many huge Chinese firms, they make discovery difficult as an American trade union found out when pressing charges against it for unfair labor practices as the Times reported in September 2016.

The Anbang shareholders in the Pingyang County area hold their stakes through a byzantine collection of holding companies. But according to dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of Anbang filings by The New York Times, many of them have something in common: They are family members and acquaintances of Wu Xiaohui, Anbang’s chairman, a native of the county who married into the family of Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader in the 1980s and ’90s.

You remember who Deng Xiaoping was, right? He was Mao Zedong’s successor who took “the capitalist road” in the first place. I guess his friends and relatives were quite happy with the NEP-type reforms since it put them in the position of buying the Waldorf Astoria and coming close to bailing out Trump’s son-in-law who will hopefully be arrested this week.

As should be obvious at this point, “state ownership” is a convenient fiction in China, especially since anybody can buy shares in such companies, including Western investors. For example, Roberts is impressed with the fact that the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp has begun to incorporate Western technologies, However, it is traded publicly on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, as is the case with the largest Chinese SOE’s, and thus no different from any other capitalist firm. In the final analysis, it is the class character of those who own the means of production that determines their social role. While the number of shares available to outside investors has been relatively small, “reforms” enacted in 2015 to transform SOE’s into mixed enterprises will likely increase their numbers as indicated by the transformation of the second largest mobile carrier.

Unlike China today, Soviet Russia never had a stock exchange. The children of Soviet bureaucrats could never look forward to inheriting their daddy’s holdings like Donald Trump did from his father. That is true state ownership.

Although ownership data is difficult to come by, you can read an article co-authored by Curtis J. Milhaupt and Wentong Zheng titled “Beyond Ownership: State Capitalism and the Chinese Firm” on the Columbia University Law School website. It hones in on Ping An, another insurance company. The largest block of shares is owned by HSBC Ltd., a multinational bank that originated in Hong Kong even though most shares are owned by other SOE’s. In 2016, Mexican families sued the bank for money-laundering the drug proceeds of the Sinaloa Cartel that had killed members of their families, just the sort of outfit you’d want to help overcome the law of value, as Roberts put it.

Milhaupt and Zheng refer to the “blurred boundaries” between private and state-owned firms in China, as I have tried to establish. To get an idea of how tangled things can get, this is how they describe ZTE, China’s second-largest telecom:

According to the website of ZTE Holdings, it is one of the “national key SOEs” designated by the State Council. The third shareholder of ZTE Holdings, Zhongxing WXT (also known as Zhongxingweixiantong), is a private firm owned by a group of individuals, of whom the founder, Hou Weigui, holds the largest percentage (18%). According to the website of ZTE Holdings, it was the first firm in China to adopt a “state owned, privately managed” model in 1993. Under this so-called “ZTE model,” the majority state shareholders contractually authorize the minority private shareholders to assume sole responsibility for managing the firm, subject only to the requirement that the state shareholders be guaranteed a minimum rate of return. Under the ZTE model, therefore, a firm is an SOE from the standpoint of ownership, but a POE [privately owned] from the standpoint of management.

ZTE? Doesn’t that ring a bell?

Trump hammered it with sanctions Trump after it was discovered that they were selling their smartphones to Iran and North Korea. But lately Trump seems to be in a forgiving mood. First it was Jack Johnson, now it is ZTE.

All ZTE had to do was pay a $1 billion fine and let bygones be bygones. Those of good faith might think there was a quid pro quo since the Chinese government approved Ivanka Trump’s application for five trademark applications related to her fashion and homeware business just days before forgiving ZTE.

At the same time, according to Vanity Fair, the theme park developer MNC Lido City has partnered with the Trump Organization to land $500 million in Chinese government loans, with another $500 million from government banks. The Trump Organization will take in almost $3.7 million in licensing and consulting payments from Lido, along with another project in Bali. The company will also earn management fees, and be “eligible for additional unspecified incentives.” You see, this is not graft since Donald Trump turned over the reins of managing the Trump Organization Donny Jr. and Eric, but chose not to divest himself financially from the company.

This is how the capitalist state operates in China and the USA. Even Donald Trump understands that Xi Jinping’s Marxism is a con. After Xi tightened his control of the state in the same fashion as Modi, Erdogan, Assad and all these other scumbags, Trump mused: “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”


June 9, 2018

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018): an appreciation

Filed under: food,obituary — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

My wife and I had a special affinity with Anthony Bourdain. He lived just 4 blocks from our building on 91st and 3rd and we used to walk past him on the sidewalk on occasion. As all smart Manhattanites are accustomed to, we never would have dreamed of asking for an autograph, nor even telling him as we were passing by how much we loved his show. Too gauche. Too bridge and tunnel. This article is my way of doing that posthumously.

We watched “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel and then kept up with him when he moved to CNN. Two shows resonated with us deeply. The first was his visit to Istanbul, my wife’s birthplace, and the other was to Cleveland, where he hung out with my friend Harvey Pekar. These two shows epitomized his sensibility. Istanbul is a city with both the kinds of street fare he always sought out as well as one of the world’s great but under-appreciated cuisines. He also had a great time hanging out with Harvey even though Harvey put out a comic strip claiming that he never heard of Bourdain beforehand. Cleveland, like a lot of down-and-out places in the USA he visited (West Virginia, Provincetown), had some really offbeat dining spots that he and Harvey revealed to viewers. That was the basic charm of the show. It was like visiting a city that you’d never get to in your life, identifying with Bourdain’s bemused but affectionate reactions to its peculiarities.

Before sitting down to write this article, I was thinking about ways that you could put him into context. Although I never read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, the book that helped him catapult into a TV career, it sounded like it was inspired by George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”, a book I had read and loved. As I suspected, I found out in the course of doing some research that this was exactly the case. The book grew out of a long essay in the April, 1999 New Yorker titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that made the connection:

A good deal has changed since Orwell’s memoir of the months he spent as a dishwasher in “Down and Out in Paris and London.” Gas ranges and exhaust fans have gone a long way toward increasing the life span of the working culinarian. Nowadays, most aspiring cooks come into the business because they want to: they have chosen this life, studied for it. Today’s top chefs are like star athletes. They bounce from kitchen to kitchen—free agents in search of more money, more acclaim.

In a NY Times “By the Book” interview last year, he was asked what books he was currently reading. One of them was Thomas Ricks’s “Churchill and Orwell.” When asked which three people he would invite to a dinner party, living or dead, he replied William S. Burroughs, Joan Didion and George Orwell. Not that he was someone who was uncritical about a primary influence. When asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?”, he replied (probably referencing Ricks’s book): “Orwell’s fastidiousness about smell is of interest. And to read of his anti-Semitism was dismaying.”

It should be obvious from the above that Bourdain was not the typical chef. I doubt that Mario Batali has read a single book in the last 20 years except something related to his job—or maybe some porn novel that made rape sound worthwile.

His father was part of Columbia Records classical division and his mother was a copy editor at the NY Times. Growing up in such a household would likely expose you to a lot of cultural and intellectual stimuli. He was accepted into Vassar College in 1973 but dropped out after two years. From there he went to the Culinary Institute of America (mischievously referred to as the CIA), where he learned to be a chef.

It occurs to me that a lot of Orwell rubbed off on Bourdain. Yesterday I noticed that Louis Allday, a member of Tim Hayward’s discredited Assadist propaganda machine in England, badmouthed Bourdain for his trip to Libya, where he spent all his time with people who hated and even fought against the dictator. Watch the show and judge for yourself.

This clip will give you an idea of what’s in store:

In fact, in clear contradistinction to Allday, support for Palestinians and for Syrian rebels go hand in hand together. It was likely that, given his admiration for Orwell, Bourdain found occasion to read “Homage to Catalonia”, a book that defended socialism against both Franco and the Stalinists. Essentially, this is the same fight we are involved with today, with people like Allday lying through their teeth to defend Syria’s Franco. At least you could give the CP credit for opposing Franco in 1938. That “the left” can end up supporting people like Assad and Putin today cries out for someone with Orwell’s integrity. Fortunately, there are signs that the Assadist left’s credibility is rapidly sinking today.

Orwell was not the only influence on Bourdain. His love of street food and “local cuisine”, as opposed to fancy French restaurants in places other than France, suggested that he had also read Calvin Trillin. I have no proof of that but would recommend a June 11, 1984 article by Trillin in the New Yorker titled “A Report for Mr. Bryant” (behind a paywall unfortunately) that hails a funky, Black-owned barbecue restaurant in Kansas City as “the best restaurant in the world”. When I was in Kansas City in my final days in the SWP, I was taking lathe and milling machine classes at night in a vocational high school. When we graduated, the teachers took us to Bryant’s and treated us to barbecue. You know something, Trillin was right.

These were just the kinds of places that Bourdain sought out. He was not a snob and even liked to eat at The Shake Shack, a kind of upscale McDonald’s one block from his building that opened in 2011. At the time, he said “I dropped to my knees and wept with gratitude.” His favorite order, according to Eater? “I’m having a double cheeseburger naked, please. No lettuce. No tomato. No nothing. Just cheese and two burgers on a potato bun. I’ll have two of those and I’m happy. I’m singing America, fuck yeah!”

If you wanted to get a vicarious taste of exotic cuisine, you could have watched Bourdain’s TV shows, many of which can be seen on DailyMotion as those above. (Just Google “Anthony Bourdain” and “DailyMotion”). Or, if you are fortunate enough to live in New York, you can enjoy them first-hand since the city, in clear defiance of the sort of nativism that exists elsewhere, is a magnet to immigrants.

Yesterday, I had lunch with an old cyberpal that I met in person for the first time. I told him that we were going to Oda’s, a Georgian restaurant on Avenue B, to honor Anthony Bourdain. I am no food critic but I can tell you that the food is fantastic there. Over lunch, the subject of Bourdain’s show on Cuba came up. I told him that this was the only episode that put me off somewhat since the clear implication was that Cuba should abandon what he called “Communism”.

I doubt that Cuba would fare very well in a system that has worked so poorly in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean Islands but I told my friend that someone so engaged with small businesses like Bourdain probably only meant that he was for privately owned restaurants, B&B’s, farms, and other small-scale enterprises. It would probably reflect current thinking in the Cuban government as well.

I mentioned to him that when I joined the SWP in 1967, I got a defense of the Cuban Revolution that was prevalent in our ranks. The comrade who recruited me said that after Castro took power, they nationalized everything, down to the last nail in the last bodega. At the time, this sounded very radical. Today, I understand that a revolution should only target the “heights of industry” as Lenin actually pointed out in 1917.

This is something I understand a lot better today, especially when it comes to Georgia. In March, I reviewed a film titled “Our Blood is Wine” that documented the revival of kvevri wine in Georgia that we had with our lunch. The film can be rented for $3.99 on Youtube:

The tie-in to Bourdain and the need to preserve local culture against bureaucratic interference should be obvious from my review:

Quinn [the director] functions pretty much the same way that Anthony Bourdain does in his visits to various parts of the world to simultaneously try the local cuisine and give his take on socio-political matters. The film consists of him visiting various vineyards that all employ the same technique that existed 8,000 years ago, namely the use of kvevris (spelled qvevris in the film). A kvevri is a clay vessel usually over six feet tall that is buried in the ground in order to allow fermentation to take place. After Georgia became part of the USSR in 1917, Stalin decided that more revenue could be generated by industrializing the winemaking process using stainless steel vessels even if it turned out an inferior product and undermined Georgia’s national identity. As Quinn visits various practitioners of an ancient art undergoing a renaissance, he often ends up like Bourdain sitting around a dinner table sampling wines and the Georgian cuisine with men and women breaking into the polyphonic style that distinguishes the country’s music. It is an altogether joyous pastime that makes me want to spend time there the next time I am in Turkey, the country immediately to its south.


June 8, 2018

Human Rights Film Festival 2018

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 8, 2018

In advance of the 2018 Human Rights Film Festival that opens on June 14th, I was able to preview three scheduled documentaries that would be of great interest to CounterPunch readers both for the subject matter and for their artistic merit. Given Hollywood’s indifference to character development as it pursues blockbuster ticket sales based on special effects and car chases, your only recourse is to watch films like “The Distant Barking of Dogs”, “Naila and the Uprising” and “The Silence of Others” that are deeply humanistic treatments of people living through the real dramas of our epoch, namely the struggle to live in a free and just society.

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June 6, 2018

Horizontalism and the Nicaraguan crisis

Filed under: nicaragua — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

After spending most of yesterday combing through the radical press and Nexis, I have a better handle on the current crisis. At the risk of sounding like a “tankie”, what you will read here departs from the narrative of most of the left press so let me start off with a brief review of some of the more typical coverage.

Ortega on Trial was written for Jacobin by Courtney Morris, an assistant professor of African Studies at Penn State. Although not using the buzzword “horizontalism”, there is no doubt that she views the university-based April 19th Movement as part of this trend that has endeared itself to anarchists and autonomists:

The 19th of April Movement shares many characteristics with similar popular democratic movements that have emerged in recent years. Like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Zapatista movement, this mobilization is defined by its diffuse, collective leadership model, strategic use of social media as a tool for collective protest, and the reclamation of public space as a site for direct political action.

However, these activists are not averse to drawing upon the authority of one of the most verticalist institutions in Latin America, the OAS: “The administration has refused, however, to allow representatives from the Organization of American States to lead the truth commission investigation as activists have demanded.” Perhaps Ortega has been influenced by other Jacobin authors, who have less confidence in an organization considered “U.S.-dominated”.

Dan La Botz poses the question in New Politics whether we are on the eve of another revolution in Nicaragua. Unlike most on the left who accuse Ortega of betraying the revolution in Stalin-like fashion, he thinks it was rotten from the start: “the central problem is that the Sandinistas have never held democracy as a core value, neither in their revolutionary past nor in their post-revolutionary and quite reactionary present.”

To show how the degenerate the FSLN was straight out of the womb, he alludes to the earliest sign: “While there was briefly an ostensibly coalition government, in fact the Sandinistas dominated the country from day one of the revolution, their coalition partners gradually resigning. The revolution was founded on deception.”

It is not exactly clear what sort of “coalition” La Botz is referring to but a five-person Council of National Reconstruction was formed in 1979 consisting of 3 FSLN members alongside Alfonso Robelo and Violeta Chamorro representing the bourgeoisie. Before the year was up, they resigned and became two top leaders of the Reagan-backed counter-revolution. Robelo joined UNO, the armed movement made up mostly of former Somoza’s National Guardsmen while Chamorro used La Prensa as an ideological battering ram against the government, resorting to lies that make Fox News look respectable. Deception? I don’t think so. I think it was more likely naivete on the part of the FSLN thinking that such figures could ever be trusted.

Writing for the ISO’s newspaper, my old friend Mike Friedman did think that the revolution was betrayed as the title “Nicaragua’s Tyrant and How He Switched Sides” indicates. You see, the regime “switched sides” by abandoning its early revolutionary goals and adopting “neoliberal and pro-business economic policies, selective repression and widespread patronage, the latter based on Venezuelan oil largesse.”

Anybody who questions whether Daniel Ortega is a “tyrant” is—ipso facto—some kind of “tankie”:

FRANKLY, I find the stance of U.S. leftists who continue to defend the Ortega/Murillo regime in Nicaragua–either because it is in Washington’s gunsights or because it somehow represents the legacy of the 1979 Sandinista revolution–utterly antithetical to anything remotely resembling a principled position.

Rather, this Manichaean perspective reflects a “campist” view hearkening back to the old supporters of the Stalinist Soviet Union (and China), who divided the world into opposing camps and thereby provided uncritical support to the USSR, its gulags and executions, and its repression of popular upsurges in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries.

Such voices have transferred their fixation on Papa Joe to any leader that has earned the ire of the U.S. and spouts anti-(Western) imperialist rhetoric. They conveniently ignore or forget the fact that we no longer live in a bipolar world, but rather one in which China and Russia have become aspiring imperialist powers themselves.

I got a big chuckle out of this. Not long after the Arab Spring began, Friedman began complaining about “regime change” supporters on Marxmail who did not understand the need to defend Gaddafi and Assad. When he posed the question of whether he belonged on such a pro-imperialist mailing list, I did him the favor of unsubbing him.

Like most people infatuated with the student movement, Friedman will have nothing to do with “verticalism”:

During my years in Nicaragua, I saw the revolution make strides toward mass participation, social justice and human well-being, and then recede and finally suffer defeat, primarily as a result of Washington’s shooting war and war of attrition, but also as a result of growing “verticalism” and popular disempowerment by the revolutionary government.

Maybe it is time for people like Friedman and La Botz to reread what happened in the Soviet Union during “War Communism”. By comparison, Nicaragua in the late 80s was a much more “horizontalist” society—not even using the death penalty that had become necessary in the Soviet Union as Trotsky explained in “Their Morals and Ours”.

Finally, we come to horizontalism incarnate. The anarchists at “It’s Going Down” conducted a long interview with one of their co-thinkers who was in the April 19th Movement that led the protests against Ortega. He (or she) describes himself (or herself) as the son (or daughter) of an ex-military poet. My eyes lingered over that term since I wondered what other country in the world would make a place for military poets.

Reading through the interview, I searched in vain for some sort of program or strategy. Alas, there was nothing but this:

Q: What are the sources of the horizontal values and structures within the movement?

A: The main source has been the realization that we don’t want to replicate the authoritarian and vertical model represented by the government. As young people, we don’t want to be told what to do by people who claim to be smarter than us. Therefore, it was necessary to experiment with other models. Some sectors only spoke briefly of these models, but it was the right time to implement them and they were beautiful to see. These models are now part of our collective vocabulary. For the first time, thousands of people are listening to groups speak, how they talk, learning how the pass around the microphone, how to speak as a “we.”

“As young people, we don’t want to be told what to do by people who claim to be smarter than us. Therefore, it was necessary to experiment with other models.” Maybe it isn’t a great idea to be spending too much time experimenting with models unless you’ve been reading Michael Albert. He’s been recommending his cookbook for 40 years at least and it hasn’t gotten us very far.

It isn’t as if this kind of activism hasn’t been tried before. Anybody remember the Piqueteros in Argentina? Starting in 1996, they organized blockades to protest the right-Peronist government of Carlos Menem as well as forming co-ops and building ties with the “recovered factories” movement. In a breathless article for TomDispatch, Jim Straub could have been describing Nicaragua today:

As a result, many of these groups broke with traditional leftist practices, turning instead to a number of strikingly participatory, directly democratic ways of acting and mobilizing. The emphasis was on broad participation and internal equality in decision-making, which came to be called “horizontalism.” They also rejected the “clientelism” which political parties in Argentina have long used to co-opt popular organizations (in which an organized community’s votes are simply traded for favors, money, or bags of groceries); and they staked out a fierce independence from all existing Argentine politicians (a strategy of political independence that they call “autonomy”). Horizontalism and autonomy can be seen as the conceptual heart of the Piquetero movement — fundamentally new political strategies used by the poorest of Argentina in their fight to create a new economy.

So whatever happened to the Piqueteros? The same thing that happened to the Zapatistas. They withered on the vine. When you consciously avoid politics, as is the custom of anarchism going back to Bakunin’s day, you surrender to class forces that do use the state on their own behalf—including Ortega’s caudillo regime.

But if you are talking about real “verticalism” as opposed to a government that dropped the Social Security “reform” like a hot potato and whose chief of police resigned under pressure on April 28th, you must consider the man most likely to replace him, one Eduardo Montealegre who was Minister of Finance in the government led by President Enrique Bolaños that preceded Ortega’s first re-election in 2007. He ran against Ortega that year and was the choice of both George W. Bush and the Sandinista Renovation Movement that consisted of people supposedly committed to the original goals of the revolution. He was ruled off the ballot in 2016 due to a technicality but will likely be cleared for the new elections the April 19th Movement is demanding.

An article written by Toni Solo in 2003 is a useful reminder of what Nicaragua’s economy was like under the economic program administered by Harvard Business School graduate Eduardo Montealegre:

Nicaragua has already privatized its telephone utility, creating a monopoly of landline phones. It did the same with electricity distribution, sold to a Spanish multinational, Union Fenosa. Consequently, stories of over-charging abound, such as the woman tortilla maker living in a shack with just a small television and a couple of light bulbs, earning around US$28 a month. Accustomed to bills of US$3 or 4 a month, she suddenly received one for US$200. Forced to pay these exorbitant demands or go without, many Nicaraguan families sink deeper into debt.

Get it? All of a sudden, you had to pay 50 times more for electricity. Meanwhile, the anarchists in Nicaragua were ready to take these measures when Daniel Ortega initially called for a 5 percent reduction in pension benefits, caring little that the net result will be a return to power by the truly “verticalist” regimes of the past.


June 4, 2018

Left Forum 2018

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

Ever since 2005, I have kept a journal for the yearly Left Forum except for 2007 (can’t remember why it was skipped) and 2016 when I decided not to shell out good money for a conference that was riddled with workshops on 9/11 and why we have to support Assad. (You can read my complaints here: https://louisproyect.org/2016/05/06/left-forum-2016-the-truth-is-out-there/. As it happens, I returned to the Left Forum last year because they banned 911 workshops and because putting up with Assadist bullshit was worth it especially when there was still a lot of good stuff going on (https://louisproyect.org/2017/06/06/left-forum-2017/).

It is easy to bad-mouth the Left Forum because unless you are far less contentious than the average leftist, especially me, you will find much of it objectionable. That’s bound to happen because the Left Forum is really nothing more than a snapshot of the left, with warts and all. Maybe there will be 100 percent contentment about the program on the eve of the American revolution, notwithstanding the complaints from the Spartacist League who pass out strident calls for revolution on the doorsteps of Left Forum host John Jay College of Criminal Justice each year. Oh, did I mention that this school geared to training people to be detectives has the most radical economics department in the city, thanks to professor emeritus Michael Meeropol?

Saturday sessions:

As a rule of thumb, I try to attend workshops that promise to increase my knowledge. So that means staying away from anything titled “A Winning Strategy for the Left” or “Time to Shut Down the CIA”. With that in mind, I went to a 10am session on Saturday titled “The Far Right in Government: Hungary, Poland, and Turkey”, featuring leftist academics speaking very knowledgably about their countries. I came in midway during the Hungary talk but took in the other two in their entirety. (You can get a short version of the talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNVc23sj5hA) Both speakers emphasized the near-hegemonic grip that the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey (AKP) have on society. In Poland, the ruling party emerged out of Solidarity and thus has a program much more generous to the working class than previous neoliberal regimes, even as it ratchets up the hatred and bans on immigrants. (I referred to this tendency in my review of a new film on Katyn: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/01/the-secrets-of-katyn/.) In Turkey, Erdogan has basically taken advantage of the exhaustion of the Kemalist project, drawing upon support from the country’s Islamist-minded majority. By using a combination of repression and social welfare similar to that being delivered in Poland, the AKP has few obstacles in his path, especially after the bloody purge of the Gulenists. Probably the only stumbling block will be the economic crisis that is taking shape with the Turkish lira in free fall. If Rosa Luxemburg Siftung, the organizer of the event, puts a link to the video recording of the event, I’ll post a notification.

Next on the agenda was “The Fight to Stay—Eviction Defense as a Right”, a 12pm workshop that featured lawyers and activists reporting on a victory for tenants—the right to a lawyer when you are served an eviction notice. This discussion was of great interest to me since I have been blogging about the Real Estate and Housing Crisis in New York. I recommend that you check the website of the people who organized the event: http://www.righttocounselnyc.org, especially a brief video providing background on their victory. I should add that our “progressive” mayor opposed the right to a lawyer at first but succumbed to pressure once he decided to run for a second term.

After lunch with my friend Tony DiMaggio, a regular contributor to CounterPunch, I joined him at a 4pm workshop on “First As Farce Then As Tragedy: It’s Time to Fire the Apprentice”, where he would be a discussant. I couldn’t tell from the title what the hell this was about but was anxious to hear what Tony had to say.

The panel was organized by Critical Sociology, a journal that was originally called The Insurgent Sociologist when it was founded in 1969 as a voice of the New Left on campus. Like me, the three speakers were all 60s radicals, including Lauren Langman who I remember from the days when he was the moderator of the now defunct Progressive Sociologists Network mailing list.

So, the goal of the three sociology professors was to try to explain why people voted for Trump. Langman, a professor emeritus, and Pace University professor Roger Salerno placed heavy emphasis on psychoanalytic theory with copious references to Freud. Ultimately, it boils down to understanding Trump as the projection of deep pathologies in white society that remind me of what Joel Kovel wrote in “White Racism: a psychohistory”. You can get an idea of Langman’s approach in his article “Psychoanalysis and American Sociology” (http://futureswewant.net/lauren-langman-psychoanalysis/). For both Langman and Salerno, explanations based on “economic” factors are of less interest than those based on psychic maladjustments. Naturally, I found all this unconvincing even though their presentations were lively.

David Smith, a U. of Kansas professor, made a useful point. If you look at extensive polling done with Trump and Clinton voters, you’ll discover that their views on economics, health care, etc. are almost identical. But when it comes to three issues: immigrants, minorities and feminism, the Trump voters depart from the consensus. You can read Smith’s explanation of this in a Critical Sociologist article that is fortunately not behind a paywall: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0896920517740615

During the Q&A, I cracked a joke about the Trotsky t-shirt that Langman was wearing and reminded the panelists that fascism was victorious because the social democracy tried to preserve capitalist property relations when they were driving the middle-class and much of the working-class nuts. I am no psychologist but that diagnosis seems sound especially when the DSA and much of the left hopes to recreate the governments that existed in the Weimar Republic and during Leon Blum’s troubled regime. I was pleasantly surprised that Smith was pretty familiar with Trotsky’s writings on fascism that I alluded to. Who knows? Maybe he was an ex-SWPer like me. There are thousands of us, the largest group on the left in fact.

While I am far apart from Langman on how to view Trump, he did seem to grasp the nature of the period we are in through his reference to a Gramsci quote that speaks very much to Roseanne Barr, Scott Pruitt and every other horror we are living through now: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (Prison Notebooks)

Sunday sessions:

Getting to John Jay a bit too late to make the 10am session, I started off the day at a standing room only workshop organized by Paul Street. Along with Bruce Dixon and Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, and Chris Hedges, they all spoke on “Imagining an Authentic 21st Century U.S. Left”. While this is generally the sort of topic I tend to avoid since it might lend itself to empty rhetoric, I decided to go since I was curious to hear what some well-known leftists have to say on our “interregnum”. I understand that the talks will be online soon so I will be brief.

Paul made the case for taking a hard line against all forms of capitalist oppression, whether it is the hard cop Trump or the soft cop Pelosi dishing it out. Glen Ford spoke about the need to nationalize the banks, something he describes as feasible since everybody, including lots of rich people, hate them. Hedges called attention to Google adjusting its algorithms since it has cost traffic for leftist websites, including Truthdig, where his articles appear on a regular basis. I can understand why he (and WSWS) are upset about this but in my view, the bigger threat is outright bans of the sort that take place in Russia or Egypt. In a period of deepening radicalization, people will tell other people about Truthdig even if Google adjusts its algorithms to exclude it from search results totally. I doubt that in a prerevolutionary situation that’s the kind of website that will be attracting much attention anyhow.

This brings me to Bruce Dixon’s talk that was about as perceptive as any I have heard in years. He laid down some principles that the left should unite around that make eminent good sense to me, starting with the need for independence from the two capitalist parties. He acknowledged that the Green Party keeps screwing up but when you are trying to build something new, it is not an easy task especially when there is no blueprint. He urged the need for teaching people how to organize in the same way that the CP taught people in the 1930s. Even if William Z. Foster had some messed up ideas about strategy, he knew how to organize people as should be clear from his handbook for CIO organizers. Compare that to the Green Party that allows any 6 or so people to form a state chapter even though they may have no idea how to build the party.

But the most powerful part of his talk had to do with his observations about divisions on the left, referring to the whole ritual of unfriending people on FB when you agree with 90 percent of what they believe. Unless we learn to unite people on the basis of that 90 percent of agreement, we can not build a strong movement. That’s what I tried to explain to my pro-Syrian revolution FB friends when I stated my intentions to vote for Jill Stein—with mixed results, I have to admit.

Finally, at 4pm there was a panel discussion with veterans of the Free Jazz movement of the 60s and 70s that included people like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe McPhee, one of the panelists. There was a slide show by Basir Mchawi about the East Cultural Center in Brooklyn from that time, which combined experimental jazz with poetry readings, dances and other cultural/political gatherings relevant to the black nationalist movement of the time. For me, this was the high point of the weekend since the “new thing” jazz of the 60s and 70s was close to my heart. As I told the speakers, when entered Bard as a 16-year old in 1961, I was disaffected from the materialism and conformity of American society but could not figure out how to challenge it. In my freshman year, I heard Pharaoh Sanders in performance with other members of the Paul Bley band that blew my mind as they put it. That same semester I heard LeRoi Jones (as he was known at the time) read from his “The System of Dante’s Hell” that was an angry attack on racism of the sort I had never heard before. The combination of Sanders’s saxophone and Jones’s reading persuaded me that black nationalism was a flame that could help illuminate the path leading away from what Allen Ginsberg called Moloch.


June 1, 2018

Vogue Magazine in hot water again for puff piece on Mideast tyrants

Filed under: journalism,Saudi Arabia,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:43 pm

NY Times, May 31, 2018
Vogue Arabia Hails Saudi Reform, Ignoring Jailed Activists
By Megan Specia

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is putting women in the driving seat — and so are we.”

That’s how Vogue Arabia described its June cover, which features a glamorous woman behind the wheel of a classic car, parked in the desert.

But the problem for some has been which woman the magazine decided to put in the driver’s seat in an issue that “celebrates the women of the kingdom and their wide-reaching achievements,” but makes no mention of the country’s most recent crackdown on women’s rights activists.

Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah al-Saud — one of the late King Abdullah’s 20 daughters — sits behind the wheel, even as some prominent female activists who fought for the right for Saudi women to drive remain locked behind bars.

In mid-May, at least 11 activists were arrested and labeled “traitors” by the Saudi government, a move that surprised many as the country is just weeks away from allowing women to drive. Some of the activists have been released, but others remain detained.

On June 24, Saudi women will legally be able to drive for the first time. But critics say the Vogue coverage fails to highlight some Saudi women whose activism helped draw international attention to the issue, and who now face persecution.

The issue does feature Manal al-Sharif, one of the Saudi activists who took part in the 2011 protests against the restrictions and was later arrested for the action, but does not mention the latest arrests.

Twitter users were swift in their reaction, calling out Vogue Arabia for what some saw as an oversight.

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In March 2011, Vogue magazine published, for the benefit of its 11.7 million readers, an article titled “A Rose in the Desert” about the first lady of Syria. Asma al-Assad has British roots, wears designer fashion, worked for years in banking, and is married to the dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has killed over 5,000 civilians and hundreds of children this year. The glowing article praised the Assads as a “wildly democratic” family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity, are at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the “safest country in the Middle East,” and want to give Syria a “brand essence.”

Vogue’s editors defended the controversial article as “a way of opening a window into this world a little bit,” conceding only that Assad’s Syria is “not as secular as we might like.” A senior editor responsible for the story told me the magazine stood by it. A few weeks later, the article and all references to it were removed from Vogue’s website without explanation. In August, The Hill reported that U.S. lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James had been paid $5,000 per month by the Syrian government to arrange for and manage the Vogue article.

For all the controversy, the article’s author, former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck, did manage to spend some one-on-one time with both Asma and Bashar al-Assad, an exclusive many journalists might have killed for. Today, as the world watches for cracks in the Assad regime and in the Assad family, Buck’s interviews are an increasingly important tool for understanding the man at the top of Syria and the woman next to him.

Sadly, Vogue’s piece of the Syrian puzzle has been almost entirely scrubbed from the internet. But, somehow, the text can still be found at a website called PresidentAssad.net, a gif-filled but meticulously updated fan page to the Syrian dictator. The site is registered to a Syrian man living in Rome named Mohamed Abdo al-Ibrahim. A personal site for Ibrahim lists him as an employee of the Syrian state-run news agency.

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