Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 19, 2020

My COVID-19 scare

Filed under: COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

In early April I was really stressed out over medical issues. To start with, when I went to the CVS across the street to get a Combigan refill that I use for glaucoma, I was told that I needed a new prescription. After contacting AdvantageCare, I learned that my optometrist was on vacation. After repeated emails to him went unanswered, I had to go over to the clinic to track down his backup. They said that they would contact him and he in turn would then contact CVS with the new subscription. I had my fingers crossed that they would receive notification by the next day since I had just one last dose of the eyedrops left. I don’t think that I’d suffer nerve damage in just a single day, but why take chances?

On top of that, I was bothered by a persistent dry cough. I doubted that it was COVID-19 because it was a kind of reflex to a tickle in my throat more than anything from inside my lungs, almost as if I had swallowed a hair. But that I coughed every 10 minutes or so did make me worry a bit.

On top of that, I was tired all the time. For the past year or so, I’ve been getting 9 hours of sleep a night but often took a nap as well. Starting from the beginning of the year, I began taking two naps a day, once in late morning and once in the early evening. Was I getting old? Hell no, I was old. But when combined with the dry cough, I could help but think that maybe I had a mild case of COVID-19. I didn’t mention this to my wife since I didn’t want to make her worry.

Around April tenth, I hit the panic button.

I opened the red wine we had shared a night ago and poured it into our glasses. I took one sip and freaked out, as they used to put it in the 1960s. There was no taste. It was like drinking water. I didn’t say a word but felt as if I had been bitten by a puff adder. When would the deep symptoms kick in? Ventilator? Oh, no. My mind was racing at the dinner table.

A minute later, my wife took her first sip and asked me, “Why doesn’t the wine have a taste?” What a relief!

At that point, I told her about my worries. (She had been a bit worried about my coughing.) We decided to test ourselves by smelling and tasting various objects. No other food or drink presented problems. We opened another bottle of red wine and it passed both the smell and taste test. The New Testament says that Jesus turned water into wine but what happened in the Proyect household? A miracle that turned wine into water? That might make some sense given my devilish ways.

My wife’s brother-in-law, who has been staying with us, joined in the discussion. He had no idea why the wine now tasted like water but did have a suspicion that my fatigue was related to the melatonin that I take almost on a nightly basis.

Roughly two years ago, I had been taking one milligram a night not so much to help me get to sleep but to help me get back to sleep. With my enlarged prostate, I get up to pee 3 or 4 times a night and sometimes have trouble getting back to sleep when dark thoughts about the Sixth Extinction or nuclear war kick in.

When the pandemic started, I switched to a 5 milligram dose after reading that melatonin could help stave off COVID019. This was something I read in a legitimate medical journal rather than heard on Sean Hannity. Granted that this is a preprint rather than the final peer-reviewed article (lots of these have been cropping up since the pandemic, including the bullshit out of Stanford), it still seemed more plausible than drinking Lysol. In an article titled “Can Melatonin Reduce the Severity of COVID-19 Pandemic?”, three Russian researchers provided this abstract:

The current COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most devastating events in recent history. The virus causes relatively minor damage to young, healthy populations, imposing life-threatening danger to the elderly and people with diseases of chronic inflammation. So, if we could reduce the risk for vulnerable populations, it would make the COVID-19 pandemic more similar to other typical outbreaks. Children do not suffer from COVID-19 as much as their grandparents and have a much higher melatonin level. Bats also do not suffer from the virus they transmit, and bats too have a much higher level of melatonin. Viruses generate an explosion of reactive oxygen species, and melatonin is the best natural antioxidant that is lost with age. Melatonin inhibits the programmed cell death which coronaviruses induce, causing significant lung damage. Coronavirus causes inflammation in the lungs which requires inflammasome activity. Melatonin blocks the inflammasome. The immune response is impaired by anxiety and sleep deprivation. Melatonin improves sleep habits, reduces anxiety and stimulates immunity. Fibrosis may be the most dangerous complication after COVID-19. Melatonin is known to prevent fibrosis. Mechanical ventilation may be necessary but yet imposes risks due to oxidative stress, which can be reduced by melatonin. Thus, by using the safe over-the-counter drug melatonin, we may be immediately able to prevent the development of severe disease symptoms in coronavirus patients, reduce the severity of their symptoms, and/or reduce the negative effects of coronavirus infection on patients’ health after the active phase of the infection is over.

This might be true but I have stopped taking melatonin after my wife’s brother-in-law referred me to an article titled “I tried using melatonin for a week and felt exhausted, even during the day.” Like me, the author had started taking 5 milligram doses:

I have tried melatonin in the past with little to no luck. Having only ever taken small doses (1-3 milligrams), this time around I slightly increased the dose to 5 milligrams, which is the highest recommended dosage.

After five days of taking melatonin, she began to see the drawbacks to a “natural” medication that left her listless during the day:

The daytime sleepiness I was experiencing started to completely overshadow the positive effects of gaining a regular sleep schedule. I had to take another midday nap and struggled to be as productive as I needed to be throughout the day.

On day seven, she decided to go back to a smaller dose and only on an occasional basis:

On the final day of the week, I was elated to stop taking melatonin. I felt that the benefits of the sleep aid had peaked on the third or fourth day of the experiment and the rest of the week had felt like a sleepy blur.

I had hoped that by the end of the week my body would have adjusted to the melatonin, but this was not the case. I considered possibly lowering my dose and trying for a second week, but truth be told I couldn’t picture getting through another week of being so tired throughout the day.

After bailing on melatonin a couple of weeks ago, I have gotten back to an 8-hour sleep and naps only once or twice during this period. On top of that, I have gotten back to my old high-energy self. Walking a couple of miles a day with my wife, even if we have to navigate the sports bar louts on Third Avenue like Odysseus avoiding both Scylla and Charybdis.

May 18, 2020

The sports bar louts endangering our lives

Filed under: COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 1:43 pm

Patrons wait for their orders to go at Caffe Dante bar and restaurant in Manhattan on March 19.(Victor J. Blue/Getty Images)

My wife and I take long walks for exercise. Two days ago, we put on our masks and walked over to Park Avenue, where since there are very few stores, you will see far fewer people on the streets. We walked down to 66th Street and decided to come back up on Third Avenue to our 92nd Street building, just for variety.

We were disconcerted to see clusters of mostly young men on the sidewalks in front of bars that remained open. You obviously couldn’t go into the bar, as will possible in 48 states pretty soon, but you were able to purchase a drink and imbibe it on the sidewalk.

We noticed that most of the men had let their masks (if they had been wearing ones) drop down to their neck for obvious reasons. You can’t down a beer with a mask on. In several of these sites, you could hear the conversation from a distance of 30 feet away as you were advancing toward them. One suspects that if you’ve had two or three beers or hard drinks, you tend to get louder and even more so if you are trying to speak over the traffic noise.

I don’t want to stereotype people (well, maybe I do) but the young men who patronize these kinds of sports bars tend to be louts. Fraternity boys who could give less of a shit about how their actions impact others. Scientists have discovered that speaking is one of the most effective ways to transmit COVID-19. They have also made clear that wearing masks, other than N95 qualified, does not protect you from being infected.

The NY Times reported on this four days ago. I would only quibble with the notion that masks can protect you:

Coughs or sneezes may not be the only way people transmit infectious pathogens like the novel coronavirus to one another. Talking can also launch thousands of droplets so small they can remain suspended in the air for eight to 14 minutes, according to a new study.

The research, published Wednesday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help explain how people with mild or no symptoms may infect others in close quarters such as offices, nursing homes, cruise ships and other confined spaces. The study’s experimental conditions will need to be replicated in more real-world circumstances, and researchers still don’t know how much virus has to be transmitted from one person to another to cause infection. But its findings strengthen the case for wearing masks and taking other precautions in such environments to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite my dim view of young men who patronize sports bars, I believe that they are less of a threat on the streets of NY than their counterparts in places like Texas, Alabama, Iowa, and Wyoming who now have the freedom to contract COVID-19 even if it results in nothing worse than the hangover they are accustomed to. But anybody over 60 who comes into contact with them could well be among the tens of thousands of casualties epidemiologists predict will take place between now and July first.

I was not the only person who was taken aback by this spectacle. The mayor, who I used to rub shoulders with at Nicaragua Network meetings in the late 80s, is pissed off about what’s going on. I reproduce the NY Daily News article on this that appeared today:

Mayor de Blasio promised strict enforcement after throngs of New Yorkers were spotted carousing and quaffing cold ones on the Upper East Side Saturday night.

“I’m not comfortable at all with people congregating outside bars,” Hizzoner said at a Sunday press conference.

“If you start to form groups of people and then, you know, two, three, five and then it becomes six, it becomes 10, it becomes 15 — that violates what we’re saying about social distancing,” he continued.

The NYPD was unable to provide stats about any arrests or fines given out during the revelry, which was caught on social media and in news reports.

Images showed people buying drinks, forming crowds and blatantly disregarding social-distancing rules — the same guidelines that led to a string of controversial, violent arrests in communities of color.

Faced with widespread outrage over those tactics, de Blasio on Friday said police would stop giving tickets to people who don’t wear face masks in public unless there was a “serious danger.”

But he promised Sunday the NYPD would enforce social-distancing rules on the affluent Upper East Side and elsewhere.

“We had a particular problem there,” Hizzoner said. “We’re not going to tolerate people starting to congregate.”

At least one UES restaurant served customers on premises, a blatant violation of March’s statewide emergency order, according to NBC New York.

“If we have to shut places down, we will if they’re starting to violate these rules,” de Blasio said.


May 16, 2020

A Good Woman is Hard to Find; Blood Quantum

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

While commercial Hollywood films have ground to a halt during the pandemic, indie films have had a new lease on life through what they call virtual cinema, a fancy term for VOD. I get invitations to review them practically every day and prioritize films with a political message.

Since most of you are house-bound like me, you probably might be on the lookout for films with an emphasis on pure entertainment. While the two films under consideration in this article could never be described as mindless entertainment, they both fall under the rubric of pulp fiction. Both are premiere efforts by young directors and have some shortcomings that are a function of inexperience, but are also attempts that are mostly successful and lots of fun in their own crash-bang way.

“A Good Woman is Hard to Find” is set in a Northern Ireland estate, their word for England’s council housing. Like the housing projects of the USA, they are incubators of drug-dealing, the only trade that can support a family in many cases.

As the film begins, we meet Sarah (Sarah Bolger) and her two toddler children, a boy named Ben, who is mute, and his sister Lucy. Ben became mute after he watched his father get stabbed to death in the street near their home. Like many of the other men in the estate, he was a petty drug dealer and probably killed by a rival dealer. That, at least, is what the local cops believe. When Sarah stops by their headquarters to see if they have made any headway in finding the killer, they tell her that they can’t waste their time with gangland rivalries.

With her husband dead, the family barely scrapes by. When her son purloins a chocolate bar at a local supermarket, the manager shames her. Her only pleasure in life beside reading bedtime stories to her children is using a neon-pink vibrator. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, after she discovers that the batteries are dead, she goes through her children’s toys desperately trying to find ones that aren’t.

While determined to protect her children from the jungle-like conditions beyond her front door, trouble breaks down that door into her meager sanctuary one day. A local dealer named Tito has stolen the drugs of two men higher up on the food chain and forced himself into her apartment to elude them. After surveying the situation, he decides that her place would be the perfect place to stash the drugs and even offers her a cut of the proceeds he makes reselling them on the street.

One day, as he is off on his rounds, her son Ben discovers the drugs and scatters them across the children’s bedroom floor as if they were talcum powder. When Tito stops by to collect his goods to sell on the street that day, he flies into a rage and tries to rape Sarah as punishment for her son’s childish mistake. Self-defense saved her from being raped, but the gangsters Tito ripped off are now determined to invade her apartment in search of Tito and the drugs. “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” climaxes with her transformation into a merciless avenger determined to both protect her family and get to the bottom of who killed her husband.

“A Good Woman is Hard to Find” is a blend of Ken Loach’s class-inflected themes and action-oriented movies about women taking care of business, like Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough” or Julia Roberts’s “Sleeping With the Enemy”. Directed by Abner Pastoll, a 38-year old British director born in South Africa, its main flaw was in failing to show the preparation Sarah went through as she readied herself to confront and defeat her tormentors. It was a bit too compressed and strained credulity. Other than that, it is a first-rate premiere film.

If you’ve spent anytime reading about American Indian society, you’ll know that the term “blood quantum” indicates whether you are a full-blooded native. The test was not introduced by the Indians themselves, but by the American government to determine whether an individual, band or nation was entitled to benefits.

In many ways, the test has become an arbitrary dividing line between natives defending their sovereignty and a method of exclusion. For example, Ward Churchill was viewed as having no standing as an Indian because he could not offer up evidence of his blood line. By any measure, however, he was a member of the Cherokee people and qualified to speak and act on their behalf. With so many Indian tribal officials are acting on their own behalf through graft, their blood is a poor measure of determining their identity.

It is available on Amazon for only $4.99.

“Blood Quantum”, a zombie horror film, was written and directed by Jeff Barnaby, who was born on the Mi’gmaq reservation in Canada. Everybody in the cast is an American Indian, except a character named Charlie who is the pregnant girlfriend of Joseph, the troubled son of Traylor, the chief of police on a Canadian reservation, where “Blood Quantum” was filmed. With zero Indian blood quantum, Charlie (Olivia Scriven) is resented by many people on the reservation, including by Joseph’s older brother Lysol, a nickname that captures his mean and violent temperament. He is the most extreme example of an Indian, whose legitimate grievances against whites makes him not only capable of killing her but his own brother for violating blood ties.

The film begins with Traylor’s father Gisigu gutting the salmon he caught in the lake near the reservation. To his surprise, the gutted fish continue to flop around after their presumptive death. Later that day, after Gisigu’s dog has fallen gravely ill to some unknown disease, he asks his son to stop by and put a bullet in the animal to end its suffering. Once that is done, Traylor puts the dog in his trunk to be disposed of later. When that moment arrives, the dog is just as alive as the gutted salmon and far more dangerous.

The reservation and the nearby town eventually fall prey to a zombie attack that is choreographed as if in a George Romero movie. Bitten once and you are doomed. Except for the Indians, that is. For some reason, if they have the sufficient blood quantum, they are immune to zombie bites just like someone with COVID-19 antibodies. As I said in a March 27 CounterPunch article, there are striking affinities.

Once a week, I go shopping with my wife and can’t help feeling queasy as I pick up an avocado to see if it is ripe enough. In my memory banks, this summons up scenes from a George Romero zombie flick or “The Walking Dead.” From their well-guarded base, the living make periodic forays into various towns looking for food, medicine, or other essential goods. This is the equivalent of us going to a grocery store or a pharmacy. In “The Walking Dead” (I bailed on the show after Rick died), one of his crew might open a door looking for canned goods only to discover that zombies lurked behind it. Death could come in the form of a zombie assault or an accidental exposure to a coronavirus-laded avocado. The logic of zombies and coronavirus is deadly. They both exist to replicate themselves, just as does the capitalist class.

As the immunized Indians begin to take white survivors into their makeshift fort, Lysol’s anger rises to psychopathic levels. This leads to a confrontation between him and those Indians who do not see blood quantum in exclusionary terms. In the press notes, director Jeff Barnaby describes his alienation from any such tests, whether applied to immigrants or to Indians:

Since the Trump election win I have never felt less welcome here in my life, in this time and place, hate for the other is at a premium. The bitterest paradox to being native in the 21st century is knowing that you’re going to have to embrace the culture that has tried to exterminate you in order to guarantee your own survival. Being Mi’gMaq and knowing the history of the Americas, and having to live in the aftermath of colonialism, there is a vicious hypocrisy to modern xenophobia: the immigrants that came here and murdered the original inhabitants are scared that immigrants are going to come here to murder them. In the interim, native people and new immigrants are getting murdered.

Like “A Good Woman is Hard to Find”, “Blood Quantum” has some first-time filmmaking flaws. Intent on showing the psychic damage done to American Indians, Barnaby bent the stick in one direction, making his characters either destructive toward others, such as Lysol, or self-destructive like his younger brother Joseph. In zombie movies, it is always best to have a couple of people in leading roles who you want to identify with. Otherwise, it becomes a bit of a slog. “Blood Quantum” comes close to that at times, but never crosses the line.

The film is available on the Shudder cable channel, but you can see it for free with a trial membership to Shudder through Amazon.

May 15, 2020

Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm


Ever since the civil war began in Syria in early 2011, the left has largely ignored the social and economic circumstances that led to a conflict costing over a half-million deaths and the migration—internal and external—of half the population. The tendency was to see Syria as a piece on a global chessboard with “the axis of resistance” fending off attacks from the West. There was lip-service to the idea that Syrians had legitimate grievances against the government early on, but by the end of 2011, the “anti-imperialist” consensus was that the rebels were jihadists interested more in fighting unbelievers than inequality.

To my knowledge, the first attempt at an analysis of the internal class contradictions appeared in 2015. Long-time Syria scholar Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl edited a collection titled “Syria from Reform to Revolt: Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations”. (A second volume never appeared.) I found this book invaluable in writing an article titled “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution”. My goal was to demonstrate that a rural agrarian crisis provided the fuel for an uprising. An article by Myrian Ababsa provided statistics that revealed the depths of misery that led to the revolt. In 2009, 42 percent of Raqqa governorate suffered from anemia owing to a shortage of dairy products, vegetables, and fruit. Malnutrition among pregnant women and children under five doubled between 2007 and 2009. That was the cause of the conflict, not Saudi desire to impose shariah law on the country.

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May 12, 2020

The Syrian fascist whose word Max Blumenthal would have us believe

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

Markus Forhnmaier (l), a member of the neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Kevork Almassian (r), an important source in Max Blumenthal’s “Management of Savagery” supposedly attesting to the jihadist character of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad

A couple of days ago, I spotted an article on the Asylum – Misinformation website about a Syrian living in Germany named Kevork Almassian, who was supposedly being deported to Syria in violation of his right to asylum. As the name of the website would indicate, this was not true. When you hear the term “right to asylum”, the first thing you think of is that this poor refugee opposed to the dictatorship might get sent back to Syria where he would be tortured or killed.

As it happens, Almassian was a fierce Assad loyalist who must have told some bullshit story about being the target of jihadis, thus forcing him to seek refuge in Germany. Who knows what kind of subterfuge he used to win asylum in Germany but it has become clear that he had connections with the country’s burgeoning fascist movement. After gaining asylum, it didn’t take long for him to get jobs working for the neo-Nazis, his latest for Björn Höcke, the AfD chairman in the state of Thuringia, where the party is widely viewed as a Nazi threat.

Clearly, there is an affinity between Almassian and AfD over their Islamophobia, a key ingredient of all fascist movements in Europe today. In the article about Almassian, we learn that he used his asylum status to help send the true political refugees back to Syria where they would be tortured or killed. In concert with AfD, Almassian has mounted a propaganda campaign to “expose” Syrian refugees as coming from Afghanistan and other countries. The scare quotes in this Tweet should give you an idea of what he was up to:

In 2015, he came to Switzerland for a conference, after which he traveled to Germany where he hoped to convert a business visa into a residence permit. When that failed, he applied for asylum. I strongly suspect that he used his fascist ties to help influence their cronies in the immigration bureau. Within days of his arrival he was pictured drinking beer with Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD activist who he would serve as social media director before long—his first job with the fascists. (See photo above)

Apparently, his ties to the German fascists predates 2015. Articles referencing Almassian appeared in a right-wing military magazine run by Manuel Ochsenreiter, a far-right journalist who was implicated in planning a firebomb attack on a Hungarian cultural center in Ukraine meant to compromise Ukrainian nationalists. He also visited Almassian in Syria in 2014.

You might even conclude that Almassian’s operation in Germany was the fruit of an alliance between high levels of Assad’s government and the AfD. There is ample evidence that the European fascist movements all shared a fondness for Bashar al-Assad, from Golden Dawn to the National Front in France.

When the war turned decisively in Assad’s favor, the AfD sought the deportation of Syrian refugees and to re-establish Syria as a safe country of origin. To help make their case, Almassian was critical. Not only did Almassian and the German fascists concur on booting Syrian refugees out of the country, they were part of the broad network of propagandists absolving Assad of using chemical weapons. After the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, one of their MPs issued a statement of solidarity with the “legitimate Syrian president”.

In an interview in 2016 with the radical right-wing newspaper Sezession, Almassian made talking points consistent with what you might read in “anti-imperialist” publications like Consortium News, 21st Century Wire or Grayzone. He claimed that Aleppo had to be besieged in order “to spare human lives”. He also claimed that there was never a democratic revolution, but that it was dominated from the start by religious radical forces.

Most principled people trying to write an account of the Syrian disaster would probably not want to use Almassian as a source. His Islamophobic YouTube videos are the sort of thing that might be referenced in a book by someone like disgraced ex-academic Tim Anderson’s “The Dirty War on Syria”.

Would you ever expect a footnote crediting Almassian in a Verso book? When I began reading the Asylum – Misinformation article, the name Almassian rang a bell. After a few minutes, I realized that Max Blumenthal had cited him in “Management of Savagery” in order to smear the Syrian revolution as a plot designed to topple Assad and replace it with one friendly to Western imperialism.

In preparing a review of Blumenthal’s book, I learned that Verso does not have fact-checkers. That in itself might not be a problem as long as the author has some credibility, like David Harvey or Mike Davis. But by 2017, Blumenthal had the well-earned reputation of being a cynical, crude, conspiracy-mongering has-been who took a turn toward Russia and Syria for cold cash. I personally didn’t think that was the explanation. Instead, I wrote this off as his inability to see politics in class terms.

In chapter six of “Management of Savagery” titled “The Next Dirty War”, Blumenthal does not even give lip-service to the idea that the revolution was hijacked by Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia. Instead, it sprang from the womb with nefarious intentions.

On the very first page, he makes the case that the protests in Baniyas were typical. Since a Sunni cleric named Anas al-Ayrout made a speech demanding the banning of mixed gender schools, this proved that the protests were intended to turn Syria into Saudi Arabia. To back this up, Blumenthal refers to an Almassian YouTube video in his endnotes with this bland assurance:

Almasian, a Syrian-Armenian refugee in Germany, has produced a series of English-language videos  that provide a corrective to Western media characterizations of the Syrian conflict. While he makes  no secret of his support for the Syrian government,  he has relied on primary sources like video of Ayrout’s sermons in Baniyas, which were faithfully translated.

For a more balanced treatment of Baniyas, I recommend “Cities in Revolution: Baniyas”, a 34-page report that presents an entirely different portrait of al-Ayrout. Despite the fact that he held conservative religious views, he was not a sectarian. In one of the first protests in Baniyas, this was his role:

The demonstration was unorganized at first, and within a few moments, Maher al Masri, climbed on the shoulders of his freedom and began chanting as well, with people falling in behind him. The protesters moved unbothered until they reached the bus depot of the city. At that point, a number of protesters attacked an Alawite bus worker and damaged his truck. Ayrout, however, intervened immediately and ensured reparations were paid to the bus owner. Ayrout then emerged chanting, “Sunni, Alawi, we all want freedom” and the protesters repeated after him until they reached the intelligence security headquarters in the city.

This, of course, went against the grain of the kind of supposed Sunni sectarianism that Blumenthal hoped to expose. On the same page, he refers to another Almassian YouTube video that supposedly represents activists in Homs chanting “We are all jihadists! We will exterminate Alawites!” Perhaps trying to fend off critics who might find Almassian problematic, to say the least, Blumenthal’s endnote adds that the chant was also referenced in a white paper at the Open Source Center, which he describes as a “CIA intelligence center”. How telling that the anti-imperialist relies on the word of the primary imperialist institution in the world with a long and undistinguished history of using the Big Lie. By June 2012, the white paper’s publication date, it was clear that the USA had little interest in throwing its weight behind poor farmers and their young urban cohorts seeking to create a democracy in the Middle East. Assad was always the lesser evil as the Rand Corporation pointed out in a workshop they convened in 2014:

Key Findings

Workshop participants felt that prolonged conflict was the best descriptor for the situation in Syria as of December 2013, but momentum seemed to be leaning toward regime victory.

Negotiated settlement was deemed the least likely of the possible scenarios.

Regime collapse, while not considered a likely outcome, was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests [emphasis added].


May 11, 2020

Peter Dreier, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the Green Party

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

On April 28th, a 71-year old professor named Peter Dreier lit into Bashkar Sunkara in The Nation magazine with the kind of ferocity that made you wonder if the Jacobin editor had co-produced “Planet of the Humans”. Titled “WTF Is Jacobin’s Editor Thinking in Voting Green?,” Dreier reacted to an April 22nd Tweet that was probably not intended to generate any kind of controversy:

You can even describe the Tweet as damning with faint praise since it disavows support for the Greens as a party and uses most of its 280 characters reminding his readers to vote Democrat.

Like many other liberals, Dreier repeats the same arguments that have been heard ad infinitum ever since Ralph Nader was blamed for allowing George W. Bush to be elected in 2000. Rather than holding Al Gore up to the scrutiny he deserved as Bill Clinton’s neoliberal sidekick, people like The Nation’s Eric Alterman and the singularly loathsome Todd Gitlin blamed Nader for being a “spoiler”.

Peter Dreier

I had never run across Dreier before but a brief search reveals that he was the subject of a 2014 LA Review of Books article by Tom Gallagher titled “Those Still Going on About Ralph Nader Electing Bush in 2000 Should Desist”. The LA review, which is many degrees to the left of the NY Review of Books, gave Gallagher the opportunity to answer Dreier’s Huffington Post article titled “Nader’s Hypocrisy,” which claimed that “Without Nader, there’d have been no President George W. Without George W., no war in Iraq.” Get it? Dreier has been writing this kind of bullshit for the longest time.

Gallagher informed his readers that Dreier was a big-time Obama fan, “displaying a life size cardboard cutout of the man at the party he was hosting and I was attending.” Like many people today who hope that Biden can carry on the Obama tradition, Dreier probably didn’t concern himself that much with Biden’s avid support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor Obama’s own dubious “peace” credentials. Gallagher sets him straight:

Well, since Peter Dreier’s main charge against Nader is that he enabled Bush to start the Iraq war, let’s stick to “Iraq war-like” things. For one, there are those who consider the drone-based missile attacks Obama orders in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere violations of international law, which is to say, war crimes. And there are those who fault him for unraveling the major legal achievement of the Vietnam War opposition, the War Powers Act, when he bombed Libya without Congressional approval. And then there’s those who think that sending more troops to Afghanistan after seven years of war, the way he did, was either a very stupid or a very cynical act — and not that many people think he’s stupid.

Dreier tries hard to make a vote for Biden sound palatable. “Thanks in part to Sanders, and the Democratic Party’s leftward shift, Biden has adopted other progressive stances on key issues—the minimum wage, health care, workers’ rights, abortion, climate change, and college debt—and could be pushed further left during the campaign and after he takes office.” There’s a big push going on to sell the Biden campaign to people in their 20s and 30s who can’t stand him, including the women who are disgusted by the arguments of Linda Hershman in a NY Times op-ed “I Believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting for Joe Biden Anyway.”

Just two years after Sunkara launched Jacobin, he was working assiduously to burnish his left credentials. This meant downplaying the Sandernista politics of the recent past, getting ISO’ers and other Marxist critics of the DP to write for Jacobin, and generally striking leftist poses. He threw the gauntlet down against the liberal establishment in the pages of The Nation in an Open Letter that had this subhead: “Liberalism—including much of what’s published in this magazine—seems well-intentioned but inadequate. The solution lies in the re-emergence of American radicalism.”

In introducing himself to Nation readers, Sunkara supplied a bit of autobiographical information. At the dinner tables of childhood friends, he was pressed to identify himself ideologically. He would “meekly” call himself a socialist, all the while regretting that he couldn’t just utter the word “liberal” instead. “Like Sweden?”, he would be asked. He replied, “No, like the Russian Revolution before its degeneration into Stalinism.” In just a couple of years he would become a diehard Sandernista, never once being discomfited by his idol’s insistence on describing socialism as what they have in Sweden.

As might be obvious at this point, Sunkara has been carrying out a delicate balancing act since he launched Jacobin. He hopes to become the leading authority on Marxism by tracing his lineage back to Karl Kautsky, an aspiration that draws sustenance from the articles written by Lars Lih and his disciple Eric Blanc over the years. Filled with erudition, Lih and Blanc’s work is bent on elevating Kautsky and demoting Leon Trotsky.

As a symbol of uncompromising revolutionary ambition, Trotsky hardly seemed to be a useful figure for the Jacobin intellectuals to exploit. They became specialists in connecting the dotted lines between Kautsky, Lenin and Bernie Sanders. Sunkara hoped to keep left and right in perfect balance. In his left hand, you had Kautsky and in his right Bernie Sanders, a professional politician who now endorses Joe Biden. Like Philippe Petite walking a tightrope across the Twin Towers in 1974, Sunkara has to find a windless day to make the daring trek across the political landscape. Needless to say, the past few months have amounted to a political category-5 hurricane, so it is not clear that a balancing act can work.

Sunkara got around to replying to Dreier on May 4th in a Nation article titled “What Should Socialists Do in November?” Despite the nod to Hawkins that got Dreier so worked up, there’s a wink-wink, nod-nod aspect to his article that makes the difference between them vanishingly small:

Of course, I’d rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican. Biden is part of a centrist party that has within it not just the oligarchs he favors but a progressive, labor-oriented wing, as well. Trump, on the other hand, is the leader of a right-wing party filled with reactionaries. It’s obvious that socialists would rather be the political opposition to a government composed of centrists than one of the radical right.

This is just another way to tell DSA’ers that it is kosher to vote for Biden. Like Earl Browder, who saw the need for the CPUSA to run its own candidates to give the appearance of class independence, Sunkara says his personal choice is a vote for Howie Hawkins. Very radical of him. Yet, who you vote for is personal, not political. Don’t you see?

If it is up to leftists to make personal decisions about who to vote for, why stand in the way of those who succumb to the pressure of voting for Biden? As Sunkara put it, “I’d rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican.” Wink-wink, nod-nod.

Instead of—god forbid—using his authority to actually help build the Green Party, Sunkara subscribes to the theory of building a surrogate within the Democratic Party:

What I left unsaid is what kind of organization could spearhead this strategy—a “party-surrogate.” This would be an organization that, as Jared Abbot and Dustin Guastella argue in Jacobin, “would be internally democratic, financed by dues, focused on member mobilization, and organized around a workers’ agenda.” Such a vehicle could contest elections on the Democratic Party ballot line—not ordinary Democrats, but candidates bound together by a simple, common program, who eschew corporate funding and are propelled to power by a broad membership base.

This is the same Dustin Guastella who lectured Jacobin readers against trying to help start a new left party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose”. But Dreier is not assuaged by what Sunkara and Guastella tell DSAers and Jacobin readers in these kinds of circumlocutions.  He wants the Full Monty, with them on the stage fully naked, playing trumpets and banging the drums for Biden.

Missing entirely from both Dreier’s attack and Sunkara’s defense is any recognition of the gravity of the situation we now face. Economists, except those writing for the Hoover Institution or the Heritage Foundation, are predicting a plunge into Great Depression type misery with hunger, homelessness and the lack of healthcare on a monumental scale. Meanwhile, Laurie Garrett argues that a three-year pandemic is the best case scenario.

Facing such a disaster, what hopes can we place in either a Biden presidency or Sunkara/Guastella’s “party-surrogate” model that is based on incremental change through the election of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was the only Democrat to vote against Trump’s pro-billionaire bail-out. There are 236 Democrats in the House of Representatives and only 1 votes the right way? Is the idea to organize DSA to back candidates who think and act like A. O-C? To tell you the truth, I’d expect her to become much more like Nancy Pelosi than the other way around.

Right now there are wildcat strikes taking place all around the country. Imagine the impact it would have if DSA began organizing people to get jobs in meatpacking houses, Amazon fulfillment centers and other front-line essential companies. In the 1930s, the CP sent people into coal mines, steel mills and auto plants. The Trotskyists sent Farrell Dobbs into a warehouse doing the same kind of dirty work that Howie Hawkins did before he retired as a Teamster last year.

The SWP miscalculated in 1978 when it pressured me to take a job as spot welder in Kansas City. If I were in my 20s today, I’d be far more willing to become part of a radical working-class movement that is destined to take shape today under conditions unlike any I have seen in my entire life.

For the DSA to become part of this burgeoning movement, it will have to wake up to the reality we face today and drop the neo-Eduard Bernstein incrementalism. The idea of slow and steady change leading to a social democratic government in the USA 20 or so years from now is utopian. It is far more likely that we are headed into unimaginable disasters with maybe a million people victims of the capitalist back-to-work drive.

Young radicals to the left of the DSA have to figure out a way to consolidate their ranks and begin the process of building a revolutionary movement. Howie Hawkins and his running-mate Angela Walker are clearly too old to play this role but they can play a major role in drawing clear class lines that are so necessary today as we enter a period in which “catastrophe” is the norm.

Dreier worries that Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker will be spoilers once again. In reality, the true spoilers will be the Democratic Party machinery in NY that has already made ballot access for 3rd parties onerous. Given the absolutely horrendous Hobson’s Choice between Trump and Biden, more people than ever will be open to voting for the GP. Unlike Sunkara, Hawkins understands that it will take a revolutionary movement to win a Green New Deal and other major reforms so necessary today. That movement will use mass actions in the streets and the openness to new political ideas during election years to move the struggle forward.

Under normal conditions, people tend to be conservative. Not in the sense of the National Review but in the sense of going to work and returning home in the evening to stare at the TV. In the 1960s, I saw people forsaking their conservatism and becoming activists, including me. That was in a time of prosperity. Today, there is no prosperity. Instead, we face a headlong dive into the abyss. The only practical political response is to become revolutionary. Last year before the coronavirus struck, I wrote about crises down the road that would demand revolutionary action. I had no idea that such a time would come so quickly. In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote the Junius Pamphlet as a call to action against WWI and the need for worldwide revolution. We have to begin thinking in the same terms as Rosa Luxemburg who put it forward most eloquently:

This brutal victory parade of capital through the world, its way prepared by every means of violence, robbery, and infamy, has its light side. It creates the preconditions for its own final destruction. It put into place the capitalist system of world domination, the indispensable precondition for the socialist world revolution. This alone constitutes the cultural, progressive side of its reputed “great work of civilization” in the primitive lands. For bourgeois-liberal economists and politicians, railroads, Swedish matches, sewer systems, and department stores are “progress” and “civilization.” In themselves these works grafted onto primitive conditions are neither civilization nor progress, for they are bought with the rapid economic and cultural ruin of peoples who must experience simultaneously the full misery and horror of two eras: the traditional natural economic system and the most modern and rapacious capitalist system of exploitation. Thus, the capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us.

May 10, 2020

A conversation on film with Eric Draitser and Shalon van Tine

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Eric Draitser

Shalon van Tine

Louis Proyect

On May 8th, Eric Draitser posted a new podcast to CounterPunch that was based on an interview with me and Shalon van Tine, a PhD student who has written for Cosmonaut, Red Wedge and Left Voice, three of my favorite magazines.

Like me, Shalon is a polymath who has written both on film and lots of other things. Her website has links to articles on Soviet Propaganda Film and the Russian Revolution as well as on Janis Joplin.

The interview was structured around a discussion of five films that each of us loved. Since we are all house-bound because of the pandemic, we picked films that were not only great but that can be seen for free on the Internet, with maybe one or two exceptions.

Her picks:

Strike (Eisenstein, 1925)
Salt of the Earth (Biberman, 1954)
La Chinoise (Godard, 1967)
El Norte (Nava, 1983)
Sorry to Bother You (Riley, 2018)


Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, 1954)
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925)
Crimson Gold (Panahi/Kiarostami, 2003)
Ceddo (Sembene, 1977)
Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

Although Shalon is much younger than me (as is Eric and just about everybody else), I was really impressed with her commitment to art films with a political edge. As part of the renaissance of Marxist thought, it is inevitable that young people look back at Eisenstein’s films to see how they reflected workers power. It was no accident that we both chose two of his masterpieces.

Eric did a great job as an interviewer, a function of his own passion for the same kinds of films. He created a FB group called Stage Left: Movie Talk for Radicals, where you can find other leftist cineastes in conversation.

May 9, 2020


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

“Rewind,” a powerful documentary about the sexual abuse of children, was initially scheduled to open in theaters on March 27th at the IFC Center in New York, and April 3rd in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow. However, like all other film releases nationwide, the movie’s theatrical opening was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Like other films I have been covering since early April, it is now available as VOD as well as to be shown on PBS’s Independent Lens on May 11th (complete screening information at www.rewinddocumentary.com).

The film was directed by Sasha Joseph Neulinger, the 30-year-old filmmaker who, along with his sister, was molested repeatedly by two uncles and a cousin. The film is structured as a kind of deeply personal series of recollections by Sasha and his rueful mother and father who failed to intervene.

“Rewind”, as the title implies, conflates his memories with the action taken on a VCR to go backward. It becomes clear from the start of the film that his family was obsessed with home recordings that serve as the narrative thread that ties this horrifying family drama together. At the beginning of “Anna Karenina”, Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” One might surmise that when sexual abuse takes place, each tale has its own peculiar twist. In Sasha’s family, there was a big appetite for mugging for the videocamera and competition as to who could be the most “entertaining”.

Sasha’s father Henry, the youngest of three brothers, was mostly content to film his two brothers. Howard, the oldest, is the star. An opera protege as a child, he became the cantor at Temple-Emanuel, the prestigious Reform synagogue on New York’s Upper East Side. Vaingloriously, he seeks the camera’s focus. Larry, the self-styled comical middle brother, is always performing in sort of a manic version of Robin Williams, mugging for the camera with a fake British accent and other “skits”. You meet them early in the film and have an intuitive sense that there is something “off” about them but it takes a while to see how much.

Growing up in this household made Sasha something of an extrovert and camera-hog himself. A plump child after the fashion of Spanky in the Our Gang comedies, he enjoys being in the limelight and being “on”. In footage taken by his father at his bar mitzvah, we see Sasha moonwalking. At a picnic, he is seen doing a Jim Carrey impersonation. As is the case with his uncles, you begin to wonder if there was something eating away at him as well.

We learn that Sasha was a well-adjusted and exceptionally bright student but around the age of seven, he began to exhibit strange, if not psychologically disturbed, behavior. One day, he made a mask out of his underwear. Like most children, he had difficulty finding words for a traumatic experience so, in keeping with the family’s theatrical tendencies, he acted it out. He even cut out little eyeholes in the underwear-mask so he could see, and then ran down the stairs. His mother was shocked to see that he written words like loser and bitch on the mask and that his “performance” ended with him grabbing a knife, putting it to his mouth, and screaming.

This was Sasha’s way of calling attention to the suffering he was enduring. His older cousin Stewart, the son of the madcap uncle Larry, was raping him on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Stewart, Larry and the blessed cantor Howard were all taking turns abusing him and his younger sister Rebekah.

I get notes from publicists all the time asking me to review horror movies. None of them could have been more frightening than what is depicted in “Rewind”, nor is there any monster more predatory than Howard. The end of the film is focused on the teen-aged Sasha gathering up courage to testify at Howard’s trial. At the time, the man was tightly connected to major, mostly Jewish, power-brokers in New York through his exalted Temple Emanuel position. They all did their best to protect him from prosecution, including Robert M. Morgenthau, who put Linda Fairstein in charge of the racist Central Park Five prosecution.

Sasha’s father’s obsession with video photography led to a successful career running a film production studio in Pennsylvania that eventually came to an end. When Sasha and Rebekah became old enough to have the courage to confront their relatives and their parents’ failure to stand up for them, the unfolding crisis made it impossible for them to continue as a family.

Perhaps the best thing that came out of his relationship with his father was being inspired to follow in his footsteps as a filmmaker. In the film notes, he explains why he decided to make “Rewind”:

I was 23 years old and I was just finishing college. I was doing some assistant editing work for a National Geographic show and there was just this one night I was sitting in the office alone. I was sitting in this editing bay by myself and there were two things going through my mind. One was: Wow, after everything I’ve been through, I love where I live, I love my friends, I love my job, I love the work that I’m doing. I’m really loving this life I’m living. But the other conversation that was happening in my mind was negative. There was this self-deprecating voice inside of my mind that had followed me from my childhood, the victim voice that I think so many abuse victims share, which says: I’m not worthy. I’m not lovable. I’m not worthy of this incredible experience. I felt that if people knew about my past, and what had happened to me, they wouldn’t want to associate with me. That what happened to me made me gross. I realized that my life was going in a beautiful direction but that I wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy and embrace it unless I faced whatever it was inside of me that was still pulling me down. So, I called my dad and asked him for the tapes.

While I understand that many of my readers would be drawn to escapist entertainment while being confined at home during the pandemic, I strongly urge you to rent “Rewind”. It is a deeply affecting story of how sexual abuse occurs in all sorts of settings, including a family that will remind many middle-class Jews of their own ostensibly normal family—including my own.

May 8, 2020

The Planet of the Humans

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 1:47 pm


Ever since Mother Jones owner Adam Hochschild fired Michael Moore for refusing to publish Paul Berman’s attack on the Sandinistas in 1986, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for him. But when he got down on his knees on the Bill Maher Show in 2008 to beg Ralph Nader not to run for President, a lot of that affection disappeared. For the past dozen years, I had grown weary of his conventional Hollywood liberalism that smacked of Rob Reiner and all the other millionaires who always ended up pleading for a vote for the lesser evil.

You could have knocked me over with a feather after I discovered that Moore had executive produced a film titled “Planet of the Humans” that broke with the liberal establishment. Like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest, all the voices of establishment liberalism, from The Nation to Rolling Stone, swarmed around his head. The editors of the pink-tinted Jacobin must have suffered whiplash when news of the film broke. Only last November, Meagan Day’s adulatory piece titled “Michael Moore Was Right” appeared. Like Trotsky losing favor in the mid-20s, Michael Moore became an unperson after “Planet of the Humans”.

Jacobin unleashed their ecomodernist hitman Leigh Phillips, who penned a piece titled “Planet of the Anti-Humanists” that predictably condemned the film as “Malthusian.” He even raised the possibility that Moore and director Jeff Gibbs were “anti-civilization,” as if they were plotting to recreate the world of Alley Oop and The Flintstones.

Continue reading

May 7, 2020

Maj Sjowall, Marxist author of detective stories, dies at 84

Filed under: literature,Sweden — louisproyect @ 12:20 am

In September 2014, I wrote a review for CounterPunch titled “Sweden and the Renaissance of Marxist Crime Stories” that referred to the writing team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. Today I read an obituary for her in the NY Times that I reproduce below to get past the paywall. While my review covered a range of Swedish Marxist crime novelists, I will quote the passage that dealt with Wahloo and Sjowall who were not only great writers but smart enough to see through the notion of the “Swedish model”:

In 1965 the husband and wife writing team of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall published their first novel “Roseanna” that introduced Stockholm Chief Inspector Martin Beck to the world. Both were committed Marxists and hoped, in Wahlöö’s words, to “rip open the belly of an ideologically impoverished society”.

Like the “Wallander” series reviewed below, the Swedish television series titled “Beck” should probably be described as “inspired” by the novels rather than a direct treatment that was faithful to the authors’ radical vision of Swedish society. That being said, “Beck” retains the noirish sensibility of the original and can be relied upon to hold the dark side of Swedish society to scrutiny as well as being first-rate television drama.

In the premiere episode of season one that aired in 1997, two teen-age immigrant male prostitutes have turned up dead. The first reaction of Beck and his fellow cops is to wonder if another “laser killer” was on the loose again, a reference that would be obscure to most non-Swedish viewers but key to understanding the preoccupations of the writers.

From August 1991 to January 1992 John Ausonius shot 11 people in Sweden, most of whom were immigrants, using a rifle equipped with a laser sight—hence his nickname. The shootings occurred when the New Democracy was on the rise in Sweden, a party that had much in common with Golden Dawn and other fascist parties throughout Europe.

Not long into the investigation, Martin Beck refocuses it on a search for a homicidal pederast. Like Bjurman, the social worker who preys on Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the killer is a respectable member of Swedish society. This is the most common element of all the television series reviewed here: the moral rot of the people at the top.

As Beck and his team make their rounds interrogating suspects in the dark of night, Stockholm is recast as a noir landscape under dark clouds and rain. This is not a city of strapping male and female blondes preparing for a weekend skiing trip but of junkies and prostitutes who belong in William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”.

Nobody could ever confuse Beck with the Aryan ideal. With his thinning hair, homely face and flabby body, the fifty-something cop played by Peter Haber, who resembles Karl Malden, looks more like an accountant or a middle manager than someone heading up a homicide investigation—or at least what American television would put forward for such a role. Nor is Beck particularly assertive in his relations with people outside his department. After he refuses to co-sign a loan his daughter needs to move into an apartment obtained illegally (likely violating Sweden’s strict housing codes), she bawls him out in a crowded restaurant as if he were an errant child.

In the first episode, we meet two of the characters with major roles in “Beck”, his subordinate Gunvald Larsson who is constantly bending or breaking rules in Dirty Harry fashion and Lena Klingström, a cyber-cop who spends her working day on the Internet looking for clues rather than going out and busting heads like Larsson. In this first episode, bending rules and trawling the Internet both produce results.

Comic relief occurs in every episode when the divorcee Beck returns home each night to his lonely apartment. Like clockwork, he runs into his unnamed sixtyish neighbor who has hennaed hair and a neck-brace that is never explained. Played by veteran actor Ingvar Hirdwall, he is always musing on the decline and fall of everything, a perfect Greek chorus of one to accompany some classic crime stories.

“Beck”, seasons one through three, can be seen on Amazon streaming.

Maj Sjowall, Godmother of Nordic Noir, Dies at 84

With her companion, Per Wahloo, Ms. Sjowall wrote 10 books starring Martin Beck, a laconic, flawed Swedish detective.

Maj Sjowall, the Swedish crime author, in 2015. “I never thought the books would last all my life,” she said.
Credit…Tt News Agency/via Reuters

Maj Sjowall, a Swedish novelist who collaborated with her companion on a series of celebrated police procedurals that heralded the crime-fiction genre of Nordic Noir (including the wildly successful books of Stieg Larsson), died on Wednesday in a hospital in Landskrona, Sweden. She was 84.

The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said Ann-Marie Skarp, chief executive of Piratforlaget, the books’ Swedish publisher. In recent years Ms. Sjowall lived on Ven, a small island off the southwestern coast of Sweden.

With their first novel, “Roseanna” (1965), about the strangling death of a young tourist, Ms. Sjowall and Per Wahloo, her writing and domestic partner, introduced Martin Beck, an indefatigable, taciturn homicide detective in Stockholm.

“He is not a heroic person,” Ms. Sjowall (pronounced SHO-vall) told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2015. “He is like James Stewart in some American films, just a nice guy trying to do his job.”


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In terse, fast-moving prose, the couple wrote nine more Beck books, including “The Laughing Policeman,” which won the Edgar Award in 1971 for best mystery novel and was made into a film in 1973 starring Walter Matthau, with its setting moved from Stockholm to San Francisco. Several Swedish movies and a TV series, “Beck,” have been made based on the novels.

Mr. Wahloo died shortly before their 10th Beck mystery, “The Terrorists,” was published in 1975, and Ms. Sjowall never revisited the detective again.

As a team, they helped redefine crime fiction with Beck’s flawed, laconic and empathetic character — an acclaimed addition to the pantheon of literary gumshoes like Georges Simenon’s Maigret and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.

Ms. Sjowall with Per Wahloo, her writing and domestic partner, in an undated photograph. They wrote 10 Martin Beck crime novels that heralded a genre called Nordic Noir. 
Credit…Associated Press

Wendy Lesser, the author of “Scandinavian Noir: In Search of a Mystery” (2020), said in an email that Ms. Sjowall and Mr. Wahloo’s novels “had a direct or indirect influence on every subsequent mystery writer in Scandinavia,” among them Henning Mankel and Jo Nesbo, as well as on American crime writers like Michael Connelly.


Continue reading the main story

Mr. Larsson’s posthumously-published trilogy of Millennium novels — including “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — “are highly derivative of all previous-to-him Scandinavian thriller writers,” Ms. Lesser added.

Mr. Nesbo, in the introduction to a 2009 English-language reissue of his third Blake mystery, “The Man on the Balcony,” wrote: “Sjowall and Wahloo have shoulders that can accommodate all of today’s crime writers. And we are all there.”

Maj Sjowall was born on Sept. 25, 1935, in Stockholm, where she grew up on the top floor of one of the hotels her father managed. She recalled an unhappy, unloved childhood.

She was a single mother at 21 — her boyfriend had left her before her daughter, Lena Sjowall, was born — then married and divorced two older men by the time she met Mr. Wahloo, a left-wing journalist and novelist, in about 1962.

Ms. Sjowall was a magazine art director, and the two worked for different publications owned by the same publisher. They fell in love discussing a crime series that would focus on a single detective. They also wanted their books to reflect their Marxist views.

“We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer,” Ms. Sjowall said in an interview with The Guardian in 2009.

From the beginning, they planned 10 books, which they wrote at night while her daughter and their sons, Jens and Tetz Sjowall Wahloo, slept. Facing each other across a table, they wrote alternate chapters in longhand. The next night, they edited and typed the other’s work, mindful of finding a style that appealed to a broad audience.

“We never talked about the story when we were writing it,” she said to The Telegraph. “The only things we said were, ‘Pass me the cigarettes,’ or, ‘It’s your turn to make some more tea.’”


“Roseanna” was inspired by an American woman whom Ms. Sjowall and Mr. Wahloo saw standing alone on a ferry to Gothenburg.

They got the idea behind “Roseanna” as they watched an American woman standing alone on a ferry trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. “I caught Per looking at her,” she told The Guardian, and she asked, “Why don’t we start the book by killing this woman?”

In their description of the fictionalized woman’s body being dredged out of a canal, they wrote: “A group of amazed people gathered around and stared at her. Some of them were children and shouldn’t have been there but not one thought to send them away. But all of them had one thing in common: they would never forget how she looked.”

After Mr. Wahloo’s death (the two never married), her literary output slowed. She collaborated with Tomas Ross, a Dutch writer, on the crime novel “The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo” (1990) and translated some of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective novels into Swedish.

Ms. Sjowall is survived by her three children and five grandchildren.

The last Martin Beck book was published 45 years ago, and Ms. Sjowall remained surprised that the stories continued to resonate with readers and fans of the Swedish TV series.

“This is a part of my life that I didn’t expect,” she told The Guardian. “I never thought the books would last all my life, or that I’d still be thinking about them after all this time.”


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