Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 23, 2017

Hitler and the Lone Wolf Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 23, 2017

Before the opening titles roll for “13 Minutes”, we see a kneeling man in a suit and tie holding a flashlight in his mouth crouched down in some kind of tunnel, looking for all the world like an engineer fixing a faulty electrical circuit. We soon learn that he had gained access to the inside of a hollow pillar at the rear of the stage in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, Germany where Adolf Hitler launched his abortive “beer hall putsch” in 1923. The man was connecting a detonator to a massive pile of explosives and his goal was to blow Hitler to kingdom come during his speech later that day commemorating the putsch.

The date is November 8, 1939 and Georg Elser is a factory worker from an impoverished background preparing to do what the students of the White Rose group and the Operation Valkyrie Generals failed to do: overthrow the Nazi system. My first reaction to the film was to see it as a more nuanced and realistic version of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” but was stunned to discover after consulting Wikipedia 10 minutes into the film that it was based on historical events. George Elser was a real person and the attempt on Hitler’s life did take place. The führer managed to avoid being killed only because transportation snafus made it necessary for him to leave Bürgerbräukeller 13 minutes before the bomb went off.

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June 16, 2017

The Perils of Sectarianism

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

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

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

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

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June 9, 2017

Films From the Battlelines: the 2017 Human Rights Film Festival

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

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 9, 2017

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

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

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

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June 2, 2017

The High Cost of Gadgetry

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

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

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May 26, 2017

Venezuela reconsidered

Filed under: Counterpunch,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 2:48 pm

Chris Gilbert

Last Friday Chris Gilbert wrote an article for CounterPunch titled The Chávez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project  that like many I have read since 1999 try to put the late President into a Marxist context, in this instance claiming that “Hugo Chávez was an heir to Lenin’s political legacy.” Before replying to Gilbert, it might be useful to mention other attempts to ground the Bolivarian revolution in one strand of Marxism or another.

In the September 2011 issue of Dialectical Anthropology, Steve Ellner posed the question of whether the process of change in Venezuela resembled a “Permanent Revolution”. After reviewing five distinct stages of the process, Ellner asserts that “the sequence of events and the strategy that influenced them recall the concept of permanent revolution espoused by Leon Trotsky”. Like many other Marxists who have weighed in on post-Chávez Venezuela, there is little evidence that Ellner still expects Venezuela to have its own version of October 1917 any time soon, especially since the native versions of Kerensky and Kornilov have the upper hand.

Michael Lebowitz has written a number of books making connections between the process in Venezuela and what some might consider a Marxism influenced by István Mészáros, including one I reviewed for CounterPunch in August 2015 . In that article, I made a point that I will repeat later on in this article, namely that Venezuela’s woes today have much to do with its entanglement in global capitalist property relations. Even with the best of intentions and inspired by the best Marxism has to offer from either Lebowitz or Mészáros, there were objective constraints that made a socialist Venezuela very difficult if not impossible to attain.

Many on the left, including Jeffery Webber whose new book The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left I reviewed for CounterPunch last month, dismiss Venezuela as a failed populist but neo-liberal experiment. They too hearken back to Marxist theory but mainly as a yardstick with which to measure (or spank) the “pink tide” governments for abandoning Marxist principles. Perhaps if Hugo Chávez had been reading Jeffery Webber rather than István Mészáros, the situation would not be so bleak. (Needless to say, when you are dealing with tenured professors, the emphasis is on reading.)

Last but not least we have George Cicariello-Maher, who like Gilbert invokes Lenin to help us understand the process in Venezuela. Cicariello-Maher is passionately devoted to the communes in Venezuela that pose a “dual power” threat to the capitalist state just as the soviets did in 1917. It is a bit complicated when you consider that the millions of dollars that have helped to get the communes off the ground in Venezuela came from that very capitalist state.

Turning now to Chris Gilbert’s essay, it is an homage to Chávez at a moment when ultraleft sectarians are blaming his policies for the current crisis. Gilbert’s focus is not on the economic woes of the country that some leftists attribute to the Bolivarian revolution’s failure to transcend its status as an oil rentier state or its adoption of a two-tiered currency model that led to runaway inflation but on Chávez’s political acumen in pursuing a single-minded strategic orientation as a latter-day Lenin.

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May 19, 2017

Documenting Discontent: Talking With Jamsheed Akrami About Iranian Cinema

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 3:16 pm

Three years ago Jeff St. Clair affixed the title “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” to my review of the Iranian director’s 1999 masterpiece “The Wind Will Carry Us”. I, of course, would not only answer yes to his rhetorical question but would go one step further and argue that Iranian filmmakers collectively have been making the greatest films for the past 30 years at least. They are the equivalent of the French nouvelle vague of the 1950s and early 60s but paradoxically produce great films under the heavy constraints of a clerical state that not only puts obstacles in their path but drives some of the elite figures into exile or in the case of Jafar Panahi kept under house arrest.

Recently I was fortunate enough to view four documentaries about Iranian film by Jamsheed Akrami, a Professor in the Communications Department of William Paterson University in New Jersey, that were made between 2000 and 2013 and are now available from Arab Film Distribution, which markets DVDs to institutional customers such as university libraries and film departments.

The price is too steep for the average CounterPunch readers but I strongly urge film professors, Mideast studies faculty members and any other academics concerned about the problems of artists in an authoritarian society to set aside money for the films when they are preparing their budget for the next fiscal year. Akrami, who has a supreme mastery of Iranian politics and cinema, is an accomplished interviewer who adroitly blends the words of these stellar filmmakers with excerpts from their work that are spellbinding.

Although I have reviewed well over twenty films by Iranian directors since the early 2000s, including nearly every film Abbas Kiarostami has made, and have read scholarly treatments on Iranian film, I was surprised by how little I knew while watching Akrami’s documentaries. Even if you have never seen an Iranian film, the documentaries will still engage you intellectually and politically since they relate to the nagging problem of artistic freedom globally.

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May 12, 2017

Andrzej Wajda, Art and the Struggle for Freedom

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH
May 12, 2017

“Afterimage” opened theatrically in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on May 19th, to be followed at the Laemmle Theaters in LA a week later. Made in 2016 by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his ninetieth year and just before his death, it incorporates the dominant theme in a filmmaking career going back to 1955—namely the Polish national struggle that has been defined by its relationship to Russia for hundreds of years.

“Afterimage” is based on historical events surrounding the Stalinist persecution of Władysław Strzemiński, an abstract artist who paid dearly for speaking out against Socialist Realism in 1950, just as the Polish United Workers’ Party was consolidating its grip on the nation. Strzemiński, who lost an arm and a leg as an officer in WWI, never let that disability stand in the way. In 1918, he attended classes at the First Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) in Moscow, where he first made contact with Casimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. He became Poland’s most passionate advocate of Russian futurism and returned to his country in full support of the Russian Revolution and the bold artistic experimentation of the Communist nation’s heroic early years.

In 1945 he co-founded the State Higher School of the Visual Arts (SHSVA) in Lodz, where he lectured on art theory and history. The school created a Neo-Visual Room that displayed a collection of his work that was based on the theory of Unism that was a synthesis of 20th century modernist trends, including Constructivism. This was a movement initiated by Vladimir Tatlin in 1913 for which art and revolution were mutually reinforcing. The Constructivists sought to make art accessible to the public and frequently created works for public festivals and street designs in the 1920s. For Strzemiński, this aspect of Constructivism was less attractive—no doubt a function of the USSR having turned into a Stalinist nightmare for workers and artists alike.

Unism stressed the complete unity of paintings based on internal laws emerging from visual affinities regardless of their origins. The title of the film originates from the importance of afterimages in this theory. As Strzemiński tells his students in the early moments of the film, they are what is left in the imagination after you close your eyes. Indeed, one of his experiments was to record optical impressions caused by looking at the sun such as the 1948 painting “Sun’s Aftersight. Woman at the window”.

The film begins brilliantly with Strzemiński customarily sitting on the floor of his apartment on the upper floor of a drab building in Lodz while he works on his latest canvas. All of a sudden a massive red sheet as tall is the building is draped across the edifice and covers his windows, robbing him of the necessary sunlight the “afterimages” artist relies on. He rises himself clumsily upon his one good leg, takes up his crutches and opens the windows. Without bothering to see what the red fabric was all about, he takes a kitchen knife and cuts large holes in order to continue with his work. Seconds later, we see what he took a knife to—a monumental portrait of Stalin. That was just the beginning of his clash with the New Order.

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May 5, 2017

Last Men in Aleppo

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:56 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 5, 2017

Winner of the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, “Last Men in Aleppo” opened yesterday for a week’s run at the Metrograph in New York. It will open on May 18 at Laemmle’s in Los Angeles, with a nationwide rollout and VOD to follow. Nominally covering the same terrain as the 41 minute “The White Helmets” that was voted the best short documentary by the Academy Awards, this is a much darker film reflecting the desperation of people facing the imminent collapse of a rebel-controlled area that might have contained 250,000 people. The film was directed by Firas Fiyyad who was in attendance for the Q&A at the Metrograph last night. He was jailed twice and tortured during the early days of the Syrian revolt. The guards told him: “You’ll have double the amount of torture because you’re a filmmaker.”

Fiyyad filmed in East Aleppo throughout 2015 and 2016 often facing the same risks as the White Helmets who were singled out for attack, just like the local hospitals. If the goal was total war to stamp out terrorism, why not snuff out those responsible for saving lives? If a three-year old might grow up to join al-Qaeda, isn’t it better to take preemptive action?

The film follows two White Helmets on their daily rounds. Khalid is a clean-shaven, chain-smoking bear of man with two young daughters he dotes on. Apparently he is one of the infidels that managed to avoid the jihadists in East Aleppo described by Charles Glass in a New York Review of Books blog: “Yet many Aleppines say that government control relieves them of the jihadists’ obsession with requiring men to grow beards and women to cover themselves, banning cigarettes, forcing them to pray, and other intrusions into their private lives.” Like many others who view Assad as a lesser evil to the “jihadists”, the former Newsweek journalist can be relied upon to bend the truth in the interests of the war on terror.

Khalid’s partner is the twenty-something Mahmoud, who has lied to his parents about his whereabouts. He reassured them that he is in Turkey but has remained in East Aleppo because he sees saving lives as his duty. Repeatedly, we see Khalid and Mahmoud digging people—both living and dead—out of rubble. Modest to a fault, Mahmoud does not want to come across as a hero. When he visits one of the people he saved, he sums up his feelings: “I didn’t like that, I’m not going to visit anyone again because I feel like this is showing off, showing these people that I saved their lives and I’m not like that.”

When they are not at work, they chat about their situation with a mixture of sardonic humor and gloomy resignation to their fate. Trying to figure out why they stay, Khalid volunteers this assessment: it is better to live under siege and face death than in a refugee camp. This does not stop him from imploring an unnamed man to help smuggle him and his family into Turkey. Ultimately, Fiyyad’s film is a portrait of men living on the edge rather than a paean to the Syrian revolution that many Syrians, including Khalid, consider a lost cause.

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April 28, 2017

Jeffery Webber and the Pink Tide

Filed under: Counterpunch,Latin America — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH APRIL 28, 2017

Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay

On February 28th I got email from a Pluto Press representative about a new book by Jeffery Webber titled The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left that seemed very timely. Pluto did not quite come out and say it but the book appeared to be an obituary on the Pink Tide.

Since I remembered the sharp exchanges between Webber and Australian Socialist Alliance member and Evo Morales supporter Federico Fuentes in the pages of the British SWP’s theoretical magazine, I was curious to see what Webber had to say. As a self-described Marxist critic of the Bolivarian revolution and left-leaning governments in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, Webber would seem to be vindicated by recent events. Argentina and Brazil had new rightwing governments. Bolivian voters had rejected a referendum that would have permitted Morales to run for a fourth term and Lenin Moreno, Rafael Correa’s successor, was elected in Ecuador by the narrowest of margins. Finally, Venezuela was coming apart at the seams. Since I had written reviews of three books by Hugo Chavez’s one-time economic adviser Michael Lebowitz and a biography of Chavez by Richard Gott, it was the right time to revisit the 21st century socialism question.

Jeffery Webber

Although Webber’s book purports to be unified thematically, it was not written from scratch. Instead, it is mostly a patchwork of  articles that have been published in JSTOR type journals such as The Journal of Agrarian Change. I was hoping for a systematic analysis of the Pink Tide but instead discovered an intelligent but frequently mistaken collection of chapters having little in common except the author’s rejection of a project with a clouded future.

The two chapters titled “Global Crisis and Latin American Tendencies: The Political Economy of the New Latin American Left” and “Contemporary Latin American Inequality Class Struggle, Decolonization, and the Limits of Liberal Citizenship” were newly written for the book and amount to an ideological frontal attack on the Pink Tide governments. Despite my disagreement with Webber’s analysis, I strongly recommend that people grappling with the political crisis of left governments in Latin America buy his book and pay close attention to his arguments. There is a dialectical contradiction between his views and those of the pro-Chavez left and a resolution on a higher level is only possible by engaging with both sides of the polarity.

Like many with sympathies for Trotskyism, Webber is always on the lookout for latter-day Kerensky’s. If you read him carefully, you will understand that Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998 repeated the early stages of the Russian revolution when both the rich and the poor rallied around the Social Revolutionary Party leader who made promises about a better future for all even if he secretly sought to keep Russia part of the capitalist system. Like many on the left, Webber considers elections to be a trap. Instead he identifies with “extraparliamentary forms of social struggle—road blockades, strikes, land occupations, worker takeovers of abandoned factories, protests, and even quasi-insurrectionary waves of mass action that toppled neoliberal governments in Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador.” In other words, these were the real revolutionary movements that could have seized power if only they had a party to represent them rather than ones led by scheming, neoliberal fakers like Chavez, Morales and Correa who “bent over backwards to capitulate to capital and ensure market confidence”. If neoliberal governments were toppled, the new ones remained neoliberal even if as they were leavened with populist good will and generous social programs. As a title of the book, “The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same” pretty much says it all. Like the classic Who song, Webber wrote something so we won’t get fooled again.

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April 21, 2017

Citizen Jane; The Activists

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

Counterpunch, April 21, 2017

Documentaries That Punch

As a rule of thumb, political documentaries work best when they have a hero and a villain just like in narrative films. One of the most memorable examples is Michael Moore squaring off against Roger Smith in “Roger and Me”. Granted, the richer and more entrenched in the Democratic Party Moore has become, the more the likability factor has worn off. But back in 1989 who could not love the shambling son of an auto worker trying to track down and confront the corporate boss responsible for shutting down the GM plant in Moore’s home-town and other rust belt cities?

You can see the same sort of human drama in “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” that opens on April 21 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and on VOD platforms. Citizen Jane is Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that was published in 1961 and was in its way as important as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” that was published a year later. If Carson’s book was a clarion call for preserving the integrity of the natural world, so was Jacobs’s book a call for preserving the integrity of the urban world, specifically New York City.

Jane Jacobs’s Roger Smith was Robert Moses, the “power broker” profiled in Robert Caro’s 1975 classic who was a symbol of the corporate-driven agenda of “urban renewal” that ran counter to Jacobs’s vision of urban spaces that grew organically from the bottom up, just like the flora and fauna of “Silent Spring”.

There were ties between Smith and Moses that might not be obvious at first glance but ultimately the “power broker” and the GM CEO shared a vision of American cities that privileged the automobile and saw the expressway connecting suburbs to the heart of the city as a kind of economic bloodstream that could make America great. Alfred Sloan, who was the CEO of GM in its early years, was deeply hostile to FDR and joined the American Liberty League, which was 1930s equivalent of the David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.

But as WWII broke out, GM’s new CEO William Knudsen became Secretary of Defense just as his successor Charles E. Wilson would become under Eisenhower. The internecine ties between GM, the national-security state and the post-WWII economic recovery helped crystallize a “golden age” that both Michael Moore and Donald Trump in their own way seek to resurrect: the Chevrolet and the suburban tract home as the divine right of workers.

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