Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 10, 2021

Report from Colombia #1

Filed under: Anthony from Colombia,Colombia — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

(Written on June 1 by Anthony, a long-time resident of Bogota)

On Sunday, the national strike committee decided that it would work to remove road blocks throughout the country as a measure of goodwill toward the government in an effort to get substantive negotiations started

On Saturday, the Colombian government had announced, and had begun carrying out, a major increase of military/police/paramilitary repression against the National Work Stoppage (Paro Naciónal). President Ivan Duque announced the militarization of eight departments: Valle de Cauca, Cauca, Nariño, Huila, and Caquetá in the southwestern corner of Colombia, Risaralda which is closer to the center of the country, and  Norte de Santander which is in the north of the country on the Venezuelan border. Key cities which have been epicenters of the struggle are located in this region. They include Cali – the country’s third largest city and a major transshipment and industrial center, Buenaventura – the most important port on the Pacific, Tumaco – another Pacific port, and provincial captials and cities of Pasto, Popayan, Huila and Perira plus other cities which have been important centers of protest such as Yumbo and Tulua.

A spokesperson for the strike committee characterized the government’s announcement as “an internal coup d’etat.” Lawyers say the government has no real legal basis for the measures, since the law they are based on is designed for natural disasters and emergencies.

At the same time as the government announced this escalation, it also announced that it had rejected the pre-agreement on negotiations with the strike committee that had been mediated by the Catholic Church and the United Nations. Instead it announced a set of conditions for negotiations which amount to a rejection of all negotiations: a complete end to all demonstrations and road blockades.

The government has focused on the road blockades as its most important target. Thousands of roads have been temporarily or intermittently blockaded all over the country. At first, they caused many local shortages and panic buying that were accompanied by widespread local price gouging. Since then, the strike committee has modified its policy to allow food, medical supplies, gasoline and other essential items to pass through humanitarian corridors, and blockades have become intermittent rather than continuous. Nevertheless, the strike committee does not have control over all blockades which often are local demonstrations by working class youth, are sometimes organized blockades by masses of truck drivers, and are sometimes imposed by masked groups of “encapuchados.”

The government’s announcements came in the middle of a major increase of police, military, and paramilitary repression, especially in the city of Cali and in the southwestern corner of the country. The internet is full of videos of police escorting armed men dressed in civilian clothes who are firing at demonstrators. In one case, a man in civilian clothes shoots two protestors and is subsequently, chased, caught and killed by other protestors. They pulled out his wallet and discovered his ID cards showing that he was an agent of the Fiscalia (equivalent to the office of the prosecuting attorney general). Subsequently, the Fiscalia confirmed his identity but disclaimed knowledge of, or responsibility for, his activity.

Nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed so far, nor how many have been wounded, arrested or simply disappeared. Over the weekend a strike committee spokesman said that the government had killed 70 demonstrators. As of May 20, the government admitted that 26 people had been killed, including 25 demonstrators or bystanders and one police officer. Indepaz, an independent NGO said that as of May 18, there had been 2,387 cases of police violence and 51 killings, 43 of which were presumably at the hands of the police.

The protest movement shows no signs of abating despite the repression. Over more than one month of mobilizations it has evolved but not relented.

The major demonstrations and work stoppages happen every Wednesday, but the strike committee has called other major events on other days, including last Friday. In between, the protests continue on a smaller, local and decentralized basis. It is truly impossible to keep track of.

One day walking day the street, a group of young people march by chanting and blocking the right of way of the bus mass transit system. That night there are reports of a major confrontation in a small town fifty miles from Bogotá. The next day, a conflict erupts between the riot squad and youth blockading a main thoroughfare in a previously quiescent working class neighborhood.

Road blockades occur on a stretch of highway at an unannounced hour of the day. The police and army show up to push the demonstrators back and remove the obstacles. The next day a blockade appears a few miles down the road.

The movement is large, but not really cohesive or well organized. It has numerous sectors. There are the unions: FECODE the teachers union, the CUT and CGT – the main union federations, and the USO – the petroleum workers union, there are various truck drivers’ and truck company federations, and there are small farmers’ organizations, LGBT organizations, indigenous communities, student organizations, pensioners and others.

There are also the unnamed armed participants collectively called the “encapuchados”. They include various anarchist groupings and presumably the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – National Liberation Army) and what are known as the dissident factions of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC dissidents are those parts of the FARC who rejected the peace agreements from the beginning, or who accepted them at first but later rejected them.

There are also armed groups of common criminal gangs that join in the protests, especially in the looting of stores and ATM machines.

In Cali, the “primera linea” – the first line of militant youth in the protests, close down road blockades at 8:00 PM, but after that time unidentified armed men – nobody knows whom – police provacateurs? Paramilitaries? The ELN?  FARC dissidents? move into occupy the contested streets. The nighttime gun battles that ensure have been falsely attributed to the protestors.

Together, the encapuchados and armed groups have been responsible for a lot of the massive destruction of property that has occurred. They target small community police stations, ATM machines, mass transit systems, and government buildings.

Most, or all, of these groups have been infiltrated by the police to one degree or another. For the last century, the Colombian police and military have built up a clandestine machine to infiltrate the left, the guerrilla movements, and opposition political parties. The budget for these operations is large, but secret. Infiltration is backed up by electronic surveillance which was vastly increased under Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia.

In between the mass peaceful protest movement and the armed groups there is a growing layer of angry, militant urban youth who have manned the road blockades, control the urban street blockades, and who have engaged in confrontations with the police.

These groups have established “resistance points” at mass transit bus depots, major intersections, and parks in many of the main cities including Bogotá, Medellin and Cali.

In Bogotá, where I live, there are two main focal points: the Portal Resistencia (officially the Portal de las Americas), and the Los Heroes monument. These are twenty-four hour demonstrations with loose-knit organizations of thousands of young people who come and go and take turns. The Portal is one of the major mass transit bus depots serving the whole city of Bogotá. The youth there have not only renamed it Portal Resistencia, they have changed all the signage, too. They control whether the buses can enter or leave.

At the Los Heroes monument, there is a major traffic interchange and a major mass transit bus interchange, both of which can be opened or closed by the demonstrators at will.

The police attack these youth, especially at night, using rubber bullets and tear gas. The youth respond with rocks, sling shots, and improvised defensive gear including makeshift shields and bicycle helmets. The Red Cross and other NGOs have set up first aid stations for those injured in the exchanges.

Other points of resistance have formed throughout this city and u in other cities,  especially in working class neighborhoods. Some are momentary and ephemeral, some have taken on a semi-permanent existence.

There is a lot more to say, and I hope to write about some of it in future updates. Here are some of the topics I hope to write about:

–La Minga (the indigenous resistance)

–Neighborhood assemblies

–The “Reconciliation” march in Cali

–The May 2022 elections

–Political pressures and factions within the government

–Political parties and their positions

–The roles of the IMF, World Bank, Standard and Poor´s

–ANDI and Colombian business

–Drug dealers/Paramilitaries/trucking

–The media

–Human rights Inter American commission

–Appointment of retired Colonel in Cali by Green Mayor

–Duque’s loan program

–The hang over of guerillerismo

–The notion that this is an insurrection floated by Forrest Hylton (It isn’t)

–A discussion of the tactic of road blockades

Anthony

June 6, 2021

Edge of the World

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

“Edge of the World” is a biopic about James Brooke, the British ex-officer who became the Rajah of Sarawak in 1842. The film allows you to have a look at an obscure figure who was something of an outlier in the emerging British Empire even if it is through a funhouse mirror. He is portrayed as a benign figure who only agreed to become a Rajah to put an end to the slavery and beheading in a region in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo.

When he read a reference to Brooke in a footnote in a George MacDonald Fraser novel back in 2009, screenwriter Rob Allyn became consumed by the idea of making a film about a “good” colonist. When the film begins, Brooke and several other British army veterans arrive on the beach in Sarawak with the sole intention of collecting rare plants and animals, not extending the rule of Queen Victoria. If you’ve seen “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, you’ll be struck by his similarities with Russell Crowe’s ship surgeon who was far more interested in discovering new species than in seizing territory on behalf of the Crown. Not only that, Allyn’s Brooke repeatedly referred to his disillusionment with the role the British played in India—like Daniel Ellsberg breaking with imperialism after seeing the reality of Vietnam as a Marine.

Despite being an obscure figure, Brooke excited the imagination of writers far more important than Allyn. He was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”, a 1888 story about two British soldiers who become “kings” of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. A very good John Huston movie based on the Kipling story starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine came out in 1975. Ironically, despite Allyn’s Brooke denouncing the idea of a “white man’s burden”, his character has far more in common with colonialism than Kipling’s grifters.

Brooke also became the model for Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”, even if only in the second half of the novel. Despite any reference to Conrad having prior knowledge about Brooke, the similarities between his plot and the White Rajah are so pronounced that scholars will always be looking for hard evidence. Unlike Brooke, Jim is a common sailor like Kipling’s characters, endears himself to Malaysian villagers by fending off a bandit that has been terrorizing them after who the fashion of “Seven Samurai”. For his efforts, they begin to refer to him as “tuan” Jim, or Lord Jim. Postcolonial scholars don’t see the novel as advanced politically as “Heart of Darkness”, but they do see Jim as an example of Kipling’s “civilizing mission”.

Allyn not only portrays Brooke as renouncing imperial ambitions but as someone who “goes native” after the fashion of “Dances with Wolves” or the disabled lead character in “Avatar” who chooses to leave his human shell to become a big blue avatar. A key feature of the film is Brooke’s bromance with a Sarawak prince who clearly has a homosexual desire for the British Rajah that is never requited. However, most Brooke scholars surmise that he too was a homosexual who enjoyed sex with his subjects.

The main conflict in the film is between Brooke and Mahkota, a Sarawak warlord who coveted the title of Rajah and routinely beheaded the pirates that preyed on the island’s villagers. Law and order hardly meant very much in a place that was marked by a very loose interpretation of Islam and animistic beliefs. In the concluding scenes of “Edge of the World”, Brooke learns that he has to abandon his semi-pacifist ideals and destroy Mahkota to save “his” Sarawak. He ends up beheading the warlord and making Sarawak an idyllic place both for the natives and British investors exploiting its resources. Brooke and his descendants ruled Sarawak until WWII when the Japanese occupied Borneo.

Suffice it to say that most of “Edge of the World” is pure hokum. Brooke wrote a letter in 1846 in which he revealed his true goals. “Sarawak is very flourishing, and I look forward to a fair revenue from it in a few years without distress to its inhabitants”. In the film, the White Rajah’s mansion Astana is anything but. It sits on stilts and is about the size of a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, but windowless and sans indoor plumbing. In reality, Brooke’s mansion looks like this:

As for Allyn’s fixation on Brooke after reading a reference to him in a George MacDonald Fraser novel, I wonder if it is the one below since his character is obviously consistent with Fraser’s shrewd assessment:

 Brooke was one of the Victorians who gave empire-building a good name, whose worse faults, perhaps, were that he loved adventure for its own sake, had an unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race, and enjoyed fighting pirates. His philosophy, being typical of his class and time, may not commend itself universally today, but an honest examination of what he actually did will discover more to praise than to blame.

Of course, Allyn chose to ignore the business about Brooke’s “unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race” when writing his screenplay. That would only undermine his hagiographic film.

However, even his superiors in Queen Victoria’s court found him taking advantage of his power, even charging him with using what amounted to war crimes against the indigenous pirates who were far less lethal than the ships the Europeans sent around the world. After all, Brooke arrives on the shores of Sarawak with a sloop appropriately named “Royalist” with its six cannons used to subdue both pirates and warlords.

“Edge of the World” is available as VOD on June 21. Only recommended for those like me with a morbid curiosity.

June 4, 2021

Thinking like an Octopus

Filed under: Counterpunch,Octopus — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 4, 2021

Just over five years ago, Inky the octopus became a folk hero because of his escape from a New Zealand aquarium. After squeezing through a narrow chink in his tank, he crawled across the floor and found an opening to a 164-foot-long drainpipe that led to the ocean. As much as I enjoyed the film based on Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, which climaxes in Tim Robbin’s daring prison break, I only wish that a gifted animation team like the one that made “How to Train Your Dragon” could tell Inky’s story.

At the time, I made a mental note to myself to learn about octopuses. From the time that I read about Inky, interest in the creatures has increased dramatically with this year’s Oscar for documentary going to “My Octopus Teacher.” Nearly everybody who spends time looking at octopus YouTube videos, or going further and reading books about them, will be struck by both their intelligence and inscrutability.

This article will discuss Sy Montgomery’s best-selling “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.” It will also review “My Octopus Teacher.” Despite the inclusion of the word “consciousness” in both titles, there are vast differences between the two. Montgomery’s focus is on the interplay between humans and the octopus taking place in aquariums just like the kind that Inky fled, while Godfrey-Smith applies neuroscience and Darwinism to a creature that seemingly defies what these disciplines hold as sacrosanct. In either book, you’ll discover that both authors have the kind of love for the octopus that other authors had for the chimpanzee or the wolf. I, of course, am referring to Jane Goodall and Farley Mowat respectively.

Continue reading

June 1, 2021

The Socialist Equality Party Member who rejected sectarianism

Filed under: sectarianism,Socialist Equality Party,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:21 pm

On March 8th, I received an email from Shuvu Batta, a former member of the NY branch of the Socialist Equality Party that publishes World Socialist Website. He had recently been expelled on the typical bureaucratic basis that Trotskyists seem to have purloined from 1930s Stalinism. He wrote:

I came across your site and while I may not agree 100% with what you’ve written, I think your critique on the SEP is correct. I was a former SEP member who after 2 and half years around the organization, have been forced to admit that the party line on the trade unions is absolutely incorrect and more-over an anti-worker stance. A former member wrote a scathing critique of the trade union line and our party politics which I was able to read. After sharing the critique to other comrades, I was put up for disciplinary action and eventually expelled.

He included a number of attachments written by him and replied to by David North’s cohorts. I believe he has made an important contribution to Marxism by taking on the SEP’s grotesque misinterpretation of Trotsky’s ideas and demonstrates a keen awareness of Marxism that persuades me that a new generation of revolutionary socialists is being born. In the memorial meeting for Ernie Tate, Tariq Ali struck a rueful note about Marxism being at a low ebb. Unless you are preoccupied with the academic left that uses NLR or Historical Materialism to carry out its debates, you will miss the reality that thousands of people in their 20s to 40s are embracing Marxism at a higher level than I ever saw in the 1960s and 70s. When you read two of his contributions to the debate within the SEP, you’ll agree with me that Comrade Batta is part of the cream of the crop.

1. From a document titled “My Defense of Democratic Centralism and a Critique of Sectarian Politics”:

Are we sectarians?

The founding document of the Communist movement, of which we are a fragment, is the Communist Manifesto.

Near the end of this document it is written that:

The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of  the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.

Communists fight for the immediately achievable goals of the working class while preparing the ground for its ultimate aim of seizing political power on a worldwide scale. By denying the internal contradiction within the trade unions between the bureaucracy and the working class and furthermore by labeling virtually all left-wing movements as “psuedo-left” we have followed a clear sectarian line which has divorced us from the mass movements of the working class and revolutionary segments of the petty bourgeoise and youth, thereby divorcing us from the momentary interests of the working class. This has been increasingly apparent in our reaction to the gains won by Chicago Teachers in the CTU, our slander against Amazon workers fighting for unionization and our “intervention” in the George Floyd Protests.

Our participation in the George Floyd protests which involved tens of millions of workers and youth around the world was concentrated almost exclusively through our WSWS writing and social media activity. Furthermore the line advanced by our party failed to address the momentary needs of the masses in protest, calling for an end to racism and police brutality. Rather than employing the dialectical method, connecting the immediate needs of the masses with the ultimate goal, as so powerfully outlined by Trotsky in the Transitional Program, we offered no such demand to workers and youth. Rather our writing focused on simply laying out the case for socialism and calling on the working class to join our movement, a movement which had no significant role in the organization and in the on-the-ground agitation for this “world-historic” event.

Our denial of the trade unions as organizations in which cadre should have physical participation has placed us in a similarly sterile situation in regards to Chicago teachers. In our “Lessons of the Betrayal by the Chicago Teachers Union” we downplay and avoid the fact that immediate and real gains were won by Chicago teachers in their strike, namely that almost all grade school classes won’t open until March, teachers have been put on a priority list for vaccinations, and they can opt out of returning if they feel unsafe, though it’ll be unpaid leave.

These gains are by no means enough in granting the security and well being of teachers, but 68% of the membership voted FOR the deal. Had we had forces in the union, actually fighting with the teachers and explaining to them why they must reject the deal, and in its stead advance more radical, aka transitional demands, we would have been able to win further gains for workers and develop real ties to them. It is only in this dialectical process of struggling alongside the working class and against bourgeois consciousness that we will be able to win immediate and practical gains for the working class, and further aid them in the process of developing socialist consciousness.

Instead our policy on this issue has been to advance the demands for workers to join our rank and file committees while breaking from their union activity, thereby we are advancing a sectarian demand calling for the split between workers in our rank and file committees and the workers in the unions. As analyzed by C’s document, the correct, ie. the Trotskyist practice that we should adopt is to utilize both our rank and file committees as centers of organization and education for the advanced workers while developing consistent work within the trade unions to popularize increasingly radical demands and develop socialist consciousnesses with the workers where the workers are.

Our incorrect and sectarian line of the trade unions has now pitted us against militant sections of Amazon workers, who recognize the desperate need for organization and are reacting with enthusiasm to the unionization drive in the BHM1 plant in Bessemer, Alabama. In an article which I have written but now denounce titled “The unionization vote at Alabama Amazon facility”, we are calling on workers to vote NO to unionization despite the fact that it would provide a platform of organization for thousands of atomized workers while initiating a mass union drive in Amazon around the country. Furthermore it would provide a platform for cadre to radicalize workers within the union and build a strong nucleus. In effect by calling on workers to vote NO we are supporting the line of companies like Amazon and Walmart, which recognize that unionization would indeed bring immediate gains to workers and pose a threat to their profits, hence their ramping up of anti-union tactics and propaganda.

The line that we are following runs counter to our document “The Globalization of Capitalist Production and the International Tasks of the Working Class” written in 1993 in which we declared “The party must strive to create new forms of struggle among these workers [i.e. those already in unions], including factory committees and even trade unions, organized independently and in opposition to the AFL-CIO.”

The demands for factory committees within existing trade unions has been completely abandoned, and in pursuit of our “independent rank and file committees” we have abandoned the fight to create new trade unions among unorganized workers, instead advocating for workers to from what are essentially Soviets under the leadership of the party; we are demanding workers to immediately form revolutionary organs ignoring the transitional steps necessary to make this demand effective.

A thorough critique of our trade union line can be found in both C’s critique and the critique of Alex Steiner, in his article “The trade union form and the butchery of dialectics”. We have not responded to Steiner’s criticisms even though they reveal severe weaknesses in our practice that has on the whole been ignored. This is why it is essential for us to seriously discuss our party line and critically analyze the results of our sectarian politics over the past few decades.

2. Socialist Equality Party National Secretary Joseph Kishore spreads lies about an Amazon worker and former party member: The worker responds:

Comrade Batta advised me that this article that appeared on the Permanent Revolution website “is more current and gives a deeper exposure of the SEP.” So, the two together will give you a sense of how a grain of sand can create a pearl of political wisdom although sand hardly conveys the level of irritation the SEP can produce.

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