Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 18, 2019

Mayakovsky and Stalin

Filed under: Russia,theater — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1910

Playwright Murray Mednick as “Old Nana” in Coyote V: Listening to Old Nana at Padua Playwrights Workshop (circa 1980) (Photo by Margaret Von Biesen)

Although I stopped going to the theater in New York about 20 years ago, I made a point of seeing Murray Mednick’s “Mayakovsky and Stalin” several weeks ago at the Cherry Lane Theater just days before its closing. I was obviously interested in the subject matter but even more so to see something by Murray who grew up in Woodridge, my home town. For reasons I don’t fully understand, some people who graduated from my high school just four or five years ahead of me went on to distinguished writing careers.

Starting out as the ghost writer for V. C. Andrews following her death in 1986, Andrew Neiderman now writes novels in his own name and is now the 73rd best selling American novelist of all time. After graduating Fallsburg Central High School, my friend and fellow 60s radical Michael Elias went out to Hollywood and became a screenwriter for some of the greatest comedies of the 1970s, including “The Frisco Kid” and “The Jerk”. As for Murray, he founded Padua Playwrights Productions, a Los Angeles-based theater company, in 1978. Among the participants in Padua’s yearly festivals were Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard, and John Steppling. The name Steppling might be familiar to CounterPunch readers, where his articles appear from time to time. He was also a contributor to Swans Magazine, where dozens of my articles can also be found.

After reviewing Murray’s play, I’ll offer my own thoughts on the Stalin/Mayakovsky connections.

Absent the conventional backdrops of a play such as furniture meant to lend a naturalist touch, “Mayakovsky and Stalin” comes across at first as a staged reading. Indicating that it is a play are the period costumes the cast wears, especially the Stalin’s white military tunic.

Essentially, there are two separate dramas that unfold in the course of this two-act play, with two separate ensembles having no interaction with each other. The entire cast first appears sitting on backless chairs at the rear of the stage. When it is their time to speak, characters from one ensemble come to the front of the stage, while the lights dim on the seated members of the other ensemble who wait their turn.

One ensemble features Stalin, his second wife Nadya, and Kirov, a close friend of Stalin who ran the CP offices in Leningrad. Kirov was killed by a gunman in the Smolny Institute in 1934, an event used as a pretext to begin the repression that culminated in the Moscow Trials. Victor Serge wrote a great novel titled “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” that was based on these events. As a character in Murray’s play, Kirov mostly functions as a Soviet toady, seeing the country’s future as infinitely bounteous, just as long as Stalin as was in the driver’s seat. Nadya is Kirov’s polar opposite. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the USSR, as reflected in her stormy confrontations with both her husband and his Panglossian comrade, she finally kills herself with a Mauser pistol in 1932.

Suicide with a Mauser pistol is what connects Stalin to the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Like Nadya Stalin, he killed himself with such a weapon in 1930. Although his suicide note did not reflect any disenchantment with Stalin’s rule, by this time he had become weary of criticisms from Stalinist officials who no longer saw any value in the kind of experimental poems Mayakovsky wrote. They were preparing the way for a “proletarian art” that lacked the poet’s complexity and wit. 150,000 people attended his funeral, the largest in Soviet history next to Lenin and Stalin’s.

As part of the Mayakovsky ensemble, the cast includes Osip and Lilya Brik, a husband-and-wife completely devoted to the poet. It also includes Lilya Brik’s older sister Elsa, who like her sister, was madly in love with him. As for Osip Brik, a wealthy Jew who providing funding for Russian futurist poets, he accepted his wife’s affair with Mayakovsky. He and the two sisters, however, were always arguing about how to evaluate his career, especially in a period when it was being devalued by the state.

Murray’s emphasis is not on Soviet society but on the thorny relations between Stalin and Nadya on one side and the complex relationship between the Briks, Elsa and the poet on the other. The Briks and Elsa lived together in a menage a trois until Mayakovsky’s untimely death at his own hand, when he was only 36. Without taking anything away from Murray’s play, their personal relationship figured more in its writing than Mayakovsky’s fall from favor in an increasingly bureaucratized USSR. Indeed, in the program handed out at the Cherry Lane Theater, there’s a note on the play by Guy Zimmerman, the artistic director of Padua, that describes Mayakovsky as a vainglorious figure who deserved the ridicule the Brik sisters direct at him throughout. There is little indication of his earlier charismatic engagement with the masses, a concession that Murray would very likely be unwilling to make to the Soviet experiment.

Like Sergei Eisenstein and Kazimir Malevich, Mayakovsky saw art as a revolutionary weapon. After 1917 and until the late 20s, the USSR allowed artists free rein, even during the NEP when police state measures first began to crop up. Despite the affinity between Bolshevik leaders and the artistic avant-garde, there were occasional clashes. In December 1918 Mayakovsky and Osip Brik met with Vyborg CP officials to set up a Futurist group affiliated to the party called Komfut. It was founded in January 1919, but dissolved by Anatoly Lunacharsky soon afterward.

Commemorating Mayakovsky a year later, Lunacharsky extolled his devotion to the revolution but frowned on a certain softness and sentimentality in his poems that demonstrated a failure to become fully proletarian in his outlook. He had a double psyche, one was cast iron and proletarian; the other was a flower and petty-bourgeois. Lunacharsky wrote:

This divided personality means that Mayakovsky is amazingly characteristic of our transitional times. It would have really been a miracle if he had not advanced battling on the way, if he had been able to kill this inner soft petty bourgeois, this sentimental lyric without any difficulty at all and immediately become a poet-tribune. Perhaps a true proletarian poet, coming from the ranks of the proletariat, a true social revolutionary of the Leninist type, a Lenin in poetry, will follow this road. But Mayakovsky was not such a poet. That is why the battles he fought, the obstacles he overcame, the struggle he waged to overcome himself were so significant.

Lunacharsky was a supporter of Leon Trotsky, who also weighed in on the poet’s suicide in a 1930 article:

It is not true that Mayakovsky was first of all a revolutionary and after that a poet, although he sincerely wished it were so. In fact Mayakovsky was first of all a poet, an artist, who rejected the old world without breaking with it. Only after the revolution did he seek to find support for himself in the revolution, and to a significant degree he succeeded in doing so; but he did not merge with it totally for he did not come to it during his years of inner formation, in his youth.

To view the question in its broadest dimensions, Mayakovsky was not only the “singer,” but also the victim, of the epoch of transformation, which while creating elements of the new culture with unparalleled force, still did so much more slowly and contradictorily than necessary for the harmonious development of an individual poet or a generation of poets devoted to the revolution. The absence of inner harmony flowed from this very source and expressed itself in the poet’s style, in the lack of sufficient verbal discipline and measured imagery. There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class, or an outright tasteless joking which the poet seems to erect as a barrier against being hurt by the external world.

Reading Trotsky’s words “There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class” only makes me feel much more sympathetic to the poet Mayakovsky. If this was the attitude of someone who would be murdered by Stalin just a decade later, imagine how lost and how depressed Mayakovsky must have become by the bureaucratic hardening of the Soviet state that was even influencing its most committed revolutionary leaders.

As for the suicide of Stalin’s wife, it is shrouded in mystery. She left no note and there’s very little historical accounts of her marriage to the dictator. It is worth considering what Isaac Deutscher wrote in his biography of Stalin that was considered practically Stalinist by James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism. In Deutscher’s view, Nadya killed herself in November 1932 after she spoke her mind about Communist Party purges and the famine and was met by a flood of vulgar abuse from Stalin.

If Deutscher was basing his analysis on reports from those close to her in 1932, there was even more of a connection between Mayakovsky and Stalin than Murray Mednick attempted to make in a play that deserves to be made available online or—better yet—staged again in New York or any other city that has an adventurous theater company willing to challenge an audience’s understanding of the 20th century’s tragic devolution.


June 7, 2019


Filed under: Film,music,Russia — louisproyect @ 11:30 pm

Opening today at Film Noir Cinema, a new theater in Brooklyn, and at the Laemmle in L.A. on June 21, “Leto” (summer) is a Russian film about the burgeoning rock and roll scene there in the early 80s that is simply rapturous. It is based on two of the period’s top musicians who are seen in their early struggling period: Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko. A good half of the film is devoted to performances based on their music and will remind you of why rock and roll will never die. Despite living in the Brezhnev era, Viktor and Mike find ways to express themselves, even when it involves feinting and ducking the repressive tendencies of the bureaucrats overseeing rock and roll concerts. Instead of banning the music, much of the effort is directed toward making it more consistent with Soviet values. However, if your favorite musicians are Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols and Blondie, there’s bound to be challenges to the peaceful co-existence between artist and officialdom.

The film is directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, whose apartment and studio were raided by Russian cops in 2017 to find evidence of embezzlement. Since Serebrennikov had criticized the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and spoken out in support of Russia’s LGBT community, many understood this as veiled political repression and spoke in his defense.

I am not familiar with Serebrennikov’s earlier work but based on the evidence of “Leto”, I would regard him as one of the major filmmakers in today’s Russia. Although “Leto” is mostly in black-and-white, color is introduced for maximum impact in key scenes. It is impossible to determine who his influences are but “Leto” reminds me of Richard Lester’s “Hard Days Night”, except focused on obscure and struggling musicians rather than superstars. What “Leto” and “Hard Day’s Night” have in common is a seamless transition between musical performance and narrative drama that are mutually reinforcing.

Serebrennikov also introduces surrealistic touches that will remind you of Lester. For example, in one of my favorite scenes, Viktor and Mike’s wife Natasha are taking a bus to bring a cup of coffee to where Mike works (rock and roll has not yet begun to pay the rent) and midway there people on the bus, stolid and elderly Soviet men and women, begin to sing Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”—a bit off-key but totally rock and roll.

The plot revolves around the triangle that involved Natasha sleeping with Viktor but only after Mike had given his blessing. Suffice it to say that Mike, who loved Viktor’s music, was never moved to break off relations. The image we get of the rock musician milieu of the early 80s in Russia is one that is marked by solidarity and affection. Given the state of Russia today, you might conclude that there was a subtle message in Serebrennikov’s film, namely that such musicians were the heart and soul of the country and an obvious inspiration for Pussy Riot and other counter-culture figures of the left who were as disgusted with Russian society as Lou Reed was with the USA.

“Leto” is based on the memories of Natalia Naumenko, Mike Naumenko’s wife. Mike, who died in 1991 at the age of 36 from alcohol abuse, was the leader of Zoopark, a band that performed songs that were often translations or interpretations of the western rock songs of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or T. Rex according to Wikipedia. Viktor Tsoi, a Korean who grew up in Kazakhstan, led a band named Kino. Referring once again to the essential Wikipedia. I discovered that despite his fame, he led a modest life, even keeping his old job in the boiler room of an apartment building after achieving huge success. His songs, like Naumenko’s, were political. Wikipedia states:

1987 was a breakthrough year for Kino. The release of their 6th album Blood Type (Gruppa Krovi) triggered what was then called “Kinomania”. The open political climate under glasnost allowed Tsoi to make Blood Type, his most political album, yet it also allowed him to record a sound of music that no one before him had been able to play. Most of the tracks on the album were directed at the youth of the Soviet Union, telling them to take control and make changes within the nation; some of the songs addressed the social problems crippling the nation. The sound and lyrics of the album made Tsoi a hero among Soviet youth and Kino the most popular rock band ever. In the diverse Soviet republics, fans translated his originally Russian lyrics into their native languages as well.

Like Naumenko, Tsoi died at an early age. In 1990, at the age of 28, he fell asleep at the wheel and died in a crash. As a sign of his transcendent appeal, even officialdom paid its respects in a Komsomolskaya Pravda obit.

Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock

“Leto” is a great film and likely to be my pick for best foreign-language film of 2019. Do not miss it.

May 21, 2019

Putin, Trump, the Christian Right, Austrian fascists, and the schizoid left

He paved the way for Max Blumenthal and Roger Waters

I came across articles this week that demonstrate how both Christian evangelists in the USA and the alt-right Freedom Party in Austria have been building ties to the Kremlin. An Open Democracy article titled “Revealed: Trump-linked US Christian ‘fundamentalists’ pour millions of ‘dark money’ into Europe, boosting the far right” was written by Claire Provost on March 27, 2019. It demonstrates how US Christian right ‘fundamentalists’ linked to the Trump administration and Steve Bannon are key players that have poured at least $50 million of ‘dark money’ into Europe.

Meanwhile, the same kind of affinities have been shared by the Kremlin and the same alt-right parties, including Austria’s Freedom Party that has been undone by a sting carried out by unidentified parties which showed the party’s Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache meeting with a woman in Ibiza who represented herself as the niece of a Russian oligarch. The party’s first leader was Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi functionary and SS member. It became the first far right party since the end of WWII to become part of a government when Jörg Haider entered a coalition with the conservative People’s Party in 2000.

In exchange for supporting Russian interests, Strache would be expected to receive secret and illegal donations from the oligarch to the tune of millions of Euros. In the same week that I noticed any number of articles on my FB timeline calling attention to the valiant role of the USSR in defeating Nazism, I wondered how many people posting links to them were aware that the Freedom Party is trying to recreate the Third Reich. An Atlantic Monthly article on the scandal reported:

A state senator for the Freedom Party, reporters revealed, once belonged to a fraternity that openly glorified the Third Reich. (“At that point, the Jew Ben Gurion came into their midst,” go the lyrics for one of the fraternity’s songs, “and said: ‘Step on the gas, ye old Teutons, we’ll manage the seventh million.’”)

People on the left who try to debunk the notion that Trump is pro-Russia will always bring up matters such as how the Ukrainians are receiving heavy weapons from the Pentagon or how sanctions have been maintained and even beefed up. They take Trump at his word when he says that he is the most anti-Russian president the country has ever seen.

However, they don’t bother to address the question of how the Kremlin colludes—dare I use the word?with Christian evangelicals. To a large extent, this simply reflects the tendency of some on the left with a particularly Manichean brand of geopolitics to act as if the Cold War had never ended. During the Cold War, the Christian right was a mainstay of the anti-Communist crusade. Billy Graham, For example, in the summer of 1954, spoke to 25,000 West Germans gathered in Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadium about how Berlin was “a battleground, a continent for conquest”. During the Vietnam War, Graham agreed with Nixon that bombing the dikes in the North would be necessary even if it cost the lives of a million Vietnamese.

But his son Franklin had a different take on Russia. In March 2014, Decision Magazine, a publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, featured a cover article on Vladimir Putin. Inside, a Franklin Graham op-ed praised Putin’s signing a law barring the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to children. He wrote: “It’s obvious that President Obama and his administration are pushing the gay-lesbian agenda in America today and have sold themselves completely to that which is contrary to God’s teaching,” Graham wrote. In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”

Mother Jones took note of the ties between Russia and the Christian right just around the time that Decision Magazine article appeared. The World Congress of Families decided to hold its annual meeting in Russia that year. The WCF is one of the most powerful voices of the Christian right. Showing its continuing ties to the European far right, it held its annual conference this year in Verona, Italy where Matteo Salvini, the fascist Interior Minister of Italy, spoke on the need “to defend the family that consists of a mother and a father”. Other participants included Dimitri Smirnov, a Russian Orthodox priest who says abortion is  “scarier than the Holocaust” and Forza Nuova, an Italian neofascist party.

Does the sting of the Freedom Party leader in Ibiza mean that he was like some poor soul in the USA who was entrapped to take part in some illegal act, like bombing a synagogue? While I am opposed to stings of this sort as a matter of principle, there is little doubt that Putin is for the rightwing coalition government in Austria until the scandal forced the withdrawal of Strache and other party members.

Russia has naturally denied any ties to Strache’s party but at least one journalist noticed disturbing contacts not only between Putin and these fascists but with Trump as well. In a December 20, 2016 Progress Pond article titled “Trump, Austrian Neo-Nazis, and Putin”, Martin Longman reported that Strache came to New York just after Trump’s election to meet with Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor who subsequently stepped down after he was charged with unauthorized communications with Russian officials. Oh, did I mention that he sat at the same table with Max Blumenthal and Vladimir Putin for the RT.com 10th anniversary banquet in 2015?

A day before the Progress Pond article was published, the NY Times described the fallout from the Strache-Flynn meeting. A cooperation agreement outlined plans for regular meetings to hammer out economic, business and political projects. It was signed by Sergei Zheleznyak, a member of Putin’s United Russia Party. In welcoming the fascists to his party headquarters, Zheleznyak cited Europe’s “migration crisis” as a field for cooperation. I can’t say I am surprised that this is a field of cooperation since the European fascist movement prioritizes nativism as well as homophobia and anti-abortion laws just as does the Trump administration.

In the 1950s, schizophrenia was often mislabeled as an illness entailing a “split personality”. In fact, the word “schizo” is Greek for split. It was confused with dissociative identity disorder that was dramatized in the 1957 film “Three Faces of Eve” that was based on a true story of a woman manifesting 3 different personalities. In 2016, M. Night Shyamalan upped the ante with “Split”, a film whose main character had 23 different personalities.

Perhaps the first popular culture expression of this phenomenon was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde”, in which the transformation to the evil Mr. Hyde was triggered by chemicals produced in a laboratory rather than in the brain.

It occurs to me that the Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde duality is rampant on the left today with many people saying all sorts of good things about the Palestinians but evil things about the Syrians because of their embrace of Manichean geopolitics that sees support for every Kremlin initiative as incumbent on “anti-imperialists”. Max Blumenthal is a prime example although one has to wonder if his being paid in rubles rather than ideology or chemical imbalances explains his evil writings on Syria. You get the same thing with Roger Waters and Susan Sarandon who would likely martyr themselves on behalf of the Palestinians when their “good” half takes over but when the “evil” half kicks in, they have no trouble defaming the half-million or so martyred Syrians as jihadists who deserved what they got.

Today, the left is mobilized around the threat to abortion rights in places like Alabama, Georgia and Ohio that is being pushed by the Christian right. It is this very Christian right that Steve Bannon is aligned with as it hopes to transform Europe into something resembling Alabama on a continent-wide basis. Dennis Bernstein can write an article for Consortium News about the ongoing struggle for abortion rights in 2016 and then turn around in 2018 conduct a softball interview with the late Robert Parry, who founded Consortium News, about The Rush to a New Cold War, which repeats the same talking points you hear continuously there, on Grayzone, WSWS.org, The Nation and elsewhere. Parry tells Bernstein:

The Russians have taken a very different perspective, which is that the United States is encroaching on its borders and threatening them in a strategic manner. They also look at what happened in Ukraine very differently. They see a U.S.-backed coup d’etat in February 2014 that ousted an elected president and put in a regime that is very supportive of free market, neoliberal policies, but also includes very strong right-wing elements, including neo-Nazis and far-right nationalists. A crisis was created and tensions continue to spiral out of control.

A search for “Freedom Party” and Austria on Consortium News returned zero hits.

Perhaps the only explanation for this part of the left’s split personality is its failure to understand world politics from a class perspective. If your unit of analysis is the nation-state and if you somehow think that the Cold War, that had at its roots a conflict between two different modes of production that were as irreconcilable as capitalism and feudalism, has never ended, you can easily end up waking up in the morning writing benign articles or Tweets about the need for solidarity with the Palestinians and closer to midnight writing crap about how Syrians gassed their own families with chlorine as a “false flag”, with blood dripping from your fangs. Is there any hope for such people reintegrating their personalities by reading Marxists? If so, I’d recommend that they start with Leon Trotsky’s 1938 “Learn to Think”:

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



January 9, 2019

The Integrity Initiative controversy (yawn)

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 8:52 pm

On November fifth, a group identifying itself as Anonymous began releasing internal documents it hacked from the Integrity Initiative, a British group that describes itself as follows:

We are a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. Our broader aim is also to educate on how to spot disinformation and verify sources. This kind of work attracts the extremely hostile and aggressive attention of disinformation actors, like the Kremlin and its various proxies, so we hope you understand that our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous.

So we are dealing with Anonymous vs Anonymous apparently. It sort of reminds me of this:

Trying to make sense of the raw documents is a chore and a half but basically they reveal an organized attempt to influence reporters to write anti-Russian propaganda. For example, a selected group of Spanish reporters were urged to expose a military officer as being soft on Putin. The go-to guys, Grayzone’s Katzenjammer Kids Mohamed Elmaazi and Max Blumenthal, told of a campaign to block Army Colonel Pedro Baños from being appointed to Director of Spain’s National Security Department on the “bogus grounds” that he was pro-Kremlin.

Reading this, you would think that it was tantamount to Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers writing a report that described Elizabeth Warren as a “socialist” even though she has openly denied that, instead claiming she was in favor of markets.

What about the good Colonel? El Pais, a newspaper that was part of the Integrity Initiative’s plot, published an article that made a series of interesting observations, starting with his tweet that referred to Putin enjoying a 74% popularity rating, something that inspired this remark: “Wouldn’t we love to have a political leader half as popular right here in the European Union!!!”

Other tweets stated: “The media war, and between the US and Russia, is so intense that it is increasingly difficult to know what’s really going on in the Syria war;” “I agree that Europe cannot draw away from Russia, but must rather be its natural complement;” “Sometimes I find it hard not to believe in conspiracy theories;” and: “As a military official from a country that is part of NATO, I cannot give an opinion. But I do believe that Europe has lost an opportunity with Russia.”

I mean, really, is the charge of being -pro Putin bogus? I suppose that in Grayzone’s eyes it is since the Colonel’s words were so undeniably true. Max Blumenthal would probably go far as to say that the officer was a NATO tool since he wrote that it was “increasingly difficult to know what’s really going on in the Syria war.” Surely, he must have been reading Idrees Ahmad or some other pro-imperialist al-Qaeda operative if he could have written these words since the entire world, at least those that seek peace and national sovereignty, understand that Assad was defending a secular, diverse and economically progressive country from American-backed mercenaries in the same way Fidel Castro defended Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

The essential method of Grayzone and all the other propaganda outlets that have taken up the Integrity Initiative documents (Mint News, Moon of Alabama, RT, Sputnik, et al) is to discount the material on the Integrity Initiative website and the articles published under their prodding, such as the El Pais item, as “fake news” because it is led by British neocons with close ties to the military. Not only does Pedro Baños get a clean bill of health, so do we hear that the Skripal Novichok poisoning was a “false flag” operation.

Why? Because in 2015 it issued a policy paper calling for expelling “every RF [Russian Federation] intelligence officer and air/defense/naval attache from as many countries as possible”. And guess what? In 2018, the same year the Skripals were poisoned, it issued another policy paper with similar goals. Given the obvious Cold War mindset of the Institute, you might have expected such papers to come out not only on a yearly basis but twice a month.

Of course, the only way to make sense of the Skripal affair is to examine the evidence as Bellingcat has done. Here, by contrast, is Max Blumenthal’s version of what happened:

One can gather how much impact Grayzone has versus Bellingcat. According to Alexa, Grayzone is ranked 452,193 globally while Bellingcat is 65,661. Maybe Max should do standup like Jimmy Dore instead of posing as a serious journalist.

Meanwhile, in an effort to show that they are gumshoes equal to Sam Spade, they discovered that the Institute for Statecraft, another neocon outfit funded by the Conservative government in England and parent to the Integrity Initiative, has a different address than the one listed in a Scottish registry of nonprofits. Going to the Scottish address listed there, Mohamed Elmaazi discovered that it was a building in complete disrepair. But the hacked documents revealed the real address, which was in the basement of a “spectacular neo-gothic mansion” in London. When Elmaazi wrangled his way into the building like Michael Moore busting a polluter’s corporate headquarters, they showed him to the door pretty quickly, which led Grayzone to comment: “Elmaazi’s swift ejection from the premises confirmed the lengths that this shadowy organization continues to go to to avoid public scrutiny.”

Really? You don’t have to be quick on the uptake to figure out that this was a military intelligence asset. Just look at their website under “Fellows” and you will see how little attention they pay to concealing their purpose. Martin Edmonds is Senior Associate Fellow for Civil-military Relations. Amalyah Hart is Fellow for Hybrid Warfare in the Indo-Pacific Region. This is a strategic planning think-tank obviously serving as an adjunct to the British military, filled with the kind of academics that get degrees from the British equivalent of Georgetown University, Princeton, et al.

One might say that Mr. Elmaazi shock as its nefarious goings-on was akin to Captain Renault’s surprise that gambling was going on at Rick’s place.

December 30, 2018

Genesis 2.0

Filed under: extinction,Film,indigenous,Russia,science — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

If you knew nothing beforehand about “Genesis 2.0” and sat down after the opening credits had rolled, you’d swear after about 15 minutes that you were watching Warner Herzog’s latest documentary since it incorporates his obsession with obsessional people. In this instance, it is the Yakut hunters who have set out on a hunting trip for dead animals, specifically the tusks of woolly mammoths that have been extinct for around 10,000 years. It would not be far-fetched to call them scavengers rather than hunters.

The Yakuts live in the very north of Siberia. If the word Siberia summons up visions of frigid, desolate and barren tundra, nothing prepares you for the hunting ground they have chosen, the New Siberian Islands to the north of Siberia that would be of little interest to any Russian if it were not the high price paid for the tusks of creatures dead 10,000 years ago and up. Of course, that price is relative since like most indigenous people drawn into the commodity production, they are likely to be the lowest paid.

We learn that woolly mammoth tusks are in high demand because there is now a ban on exporting elephant tusks to China where they are used in carvings purchased by a nouveau riche population that shows little interest in whether a knick-knack on their fireplace mantle might eventually lead to the extinction of the African elephant, the genetic relative of the woolly mammoth as well as the mastodon. In the commodity chain, a Yakut hunter might get a hundred dollars for a tusk that is in relatively good condition. It is then sold in the marketplace in China for up to tens of thousands of dollars to a merchant who then hires artisans to turn it into something looking like this:

This goes for $130,000 at http://mammothtusk.org/

“Genesis 2.0” is narrated by Christian Frei, the Swiss director whose native language is German. If it wasn’t for the offbeat subject, the narrator’s quizzical tone and German accent would convince you that you were listening to Werner Herzog. That being said, Frei is dealing with far more deeply philosophical questions than any I have ever seen in a Herzog film. Since I consider Herzog to be one of the top ten living filmmakers, that’s quite a compliment to Frei whose ambition is to engage with the deepest concerns of the 21st century: what is humanity’s future and what is the future of life in general? Although we do not hear the term “sixth extinction” once in the film, you can’t help but think of it.

Among the men profiled by Frei is Peter Grigoriev, a Yakut who dropped out of college to become a mammoth tusk hunter. His brother Semyon also plays a major role in the documentary even though he is not a hunter. He is a paleontologist and head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic in northern Siberia. His dream is to resurrect a woolly mammoth, a task his brother and his fellow hunters make plausible after they stumble across the nearly complete carcass of a baby woolly mammoth that has been so well-preserved under the frozen tundra that its blood pours liquid from its veins.

Like Indiana Jones coming across the lost ark of the covenant, Semyon feels like his lifelong dream has been realized. With samples in hand, he flies to South Korea to connect with Woo Suk Hwang who runs Sooam Biotech, the largest cloning laboratory in the world and most successful. While Woo is mainly interested in pure science, he pays his bills by cloning the pet dogs of wealthy people who are willing to pay the same money to be reconnected with Fido as those willing to shell out for a mammoth tusk carving. We hear from one customer, a woman with a distinctly nasal Queens accent who says she loved her dog more than anybody, including her husband and her mother. In moments like this, you can also be fooled into thinking you are watching a Werner Herzog since the unintended comedy is funnier than any Will Ferrell movie I’ve ever seen.

This is not Semyon’s last stop. Next, he flies to China to meet with the top management of BGI, a genome sequencing laboratory that has Communist Party members and military officers on its board. They are anxious to register the dead baby woolly mammoth’s genome codes with BGI that is aspiring to encompass every single living thing on earth in its electronic archives. Like Woo, BGI pays for their pure science undertakings by the more menial job of testing fetal samples sent to their labs by parents anxious to preempt having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. When Semyon’s colleague questions the morality of such a business, the BGI executive stares blankly at him with a plastic smile on her face.

Let me conclude with something from the press notes that helps pull together the different strands of this remarkable film that opens on January second at the IFC in New York:

There is a kind of gold rush fever in the air, because the prices for this white gold have never been so high. But the thawing permafrost unveils more than just precious ivory. Sometimes the hunters find an almost completely preserved mammoth carcass with fur, liquid blood and muscle tissue on which arctic foxes gnaw.

Such finds are magnets for high-tech Russian and South Korean clone researchers in search of mammoth cells with the greatest possible degree of intact DNA. Their mission could be part of a science-fiction plot. They want to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life à la “Jurassic Park”, and resurrect it as a species. And that’s just the beginning. Worldwide, biologists are working on re-inventing life. They want to learn the language of nature and create life following the Lego principle. ( The Lego Principle refers to the concept of connecting first to God and then to one another. Regardless of the shape, size, or color of any LEGO brick, each is designed to do just one thing: connect. LEGO pieces are designed to connect at the top with studs and the bottom with tubes. Following this metaphor, if you can connect to the top with God and to the foundation with others, you then have the ability to shape the world you live in.) The goal of synthetic biology is to produce complete artificial biological systems. Man becomes the Creator.

The resurrection of the mammoth is a first track and manifestation of this next great technological revolution. An exercise. A multi-million dollar game. The new technology may well turn the world as we know it completely on its head…and all of this has its origin in the unstoppably thawing permafrost at the extreme edge of Siberia.

Genesis two point zero.


December 28, 2018

Russia Without Putin

Filed under: Counterpunch,Russia — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

For the longest time Vladimir Putin has assumed the role of an Ian Fleming super-villain in the imaginations of both liberal and neoconservative pundits. Like one of those well-worn set pieces in a James Bond novel, he sits opposite our British super-spy in a chess game with the world hegemony awarded to the winning side. Or in the case of a draw, multipolarity.

Any book on Putin and Russia that departs from these stereotypes would be most welcome. When it turns out to be a first-rate Marxist analysis, it should be added to your must-read list for 2019. The good news is that book has arrived in the form of Tony Wood’s Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War, a ground-breaking study that departs from the lurid personality-driven narratives that are the stock-in-trade of MSNBC or the Washington Post. Additionally, for those on the left whose ideas are shaped by Stephen F. Cohen’s pro-Putin apologetics, the book will serve as a wake-up call to return to a class rather than a chess analysis. If Rachel Maddow is for the chess-master playing white, there is no reason to uncritically root for who is playing black. In keeping with the palette analogy, it is worth recalling Lenin’s citation of Mephistopheles’s words from Goethe’s Faust in his 1917 Letter on Tactics: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.”

Continue reading

November 4, 2017

The Kremlin/social media controversy

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 10:12 pm

Frankly, I have stayed away from an articles or TV news segments dealing with the Russia/social media controversy since it seems so pointless. Russian trolls and bots are here to stay, even as the NY Times admits in video titled “How Russian Bots and Trolls Invade Our Lives — and Elections”. They do recommend, however, warning about such interference in our wonderful open society by looking for clues that would reveal its Russian origins:

  1. If the timestamp on the post is during working hours in St. Petersburg, that’s a red flag. (What if it is someone with insomnia?)
  2. Posting dozens of items a day. (That would account for 90 percent of the people on Twitter, I’m afraid.)
  3. Look for alphanumeric scrambles in a user id. (Again, that sounds like a lot of the Twitter accounts I’ve run into.)
  4. Google the profile picture. (If it is an attractive female, it is likely a photo of a German supermodel according to Ben Nimmo, an expert on these matters apparently.)
  5. Look at the language. If there are grammar mistakes, it might be a Rooskie. (The Times supplies an example: “So, let me get this right” As it happens, this was deemed grammatically correct by Grammarly so maybe they are Russian agents themselves?)

What I still don’t get is the purpose of this intervention. If it is to win a new Cold War, as Clint Watts, an ex-FBI agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, it is difficult to understand why the Kremlin paid for Facebook ads that took both right and left positions. The Washington Post, which has been fixated on Russian meddling with MSNBC running a close second, tried to explain:

The batch of more than 3,000 Russian-bought ads that Facebook is preparing to turn over to Congress shows a deep understanding of social divides in American society, with some ads promoting African American rights groups, including Black Lives Matter, and others suggesting that these same groups pose a rising political threat, say people familiar with the covert influence campaign.

“Is it a goal of the Kremlin to encourage discord in American society? The answer to that is yes,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is now a director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “More generally, Putin has an idea that our society is imperfect, that our democracy is not better than his, so to see us in conflict on big social issues is in the Kremlin’s interests.”

I try to imagine the high-level strategy meeting that took place between Putin and the top guys in the Foreign Intelligence Service:

Putin: So, gentlemen, why exactly are we giving equal time to fake BLM and white supremacy ads?

Colonel Badenoff: We believe this is the best way to win the new Cold War. After the USA gets bogged down in bitter divisions, the BRICS will become the new hegemon.

Putin: Okay, just make sure to make it sound real. No alphanumeric scrambling or German supermodels.

If Russia was trying to make an impact on American politics, the $100,000 it spent would have the effect of a mosquito bite on an elephant. Just compare that to the budget of the Trump and Clinton campaigns: $81 million. Not only that, Russian ads taking both sides of a divisive issue would be like knocking down an open door. Most people get their ideas from outlets like AM talk radio for the right and CNN or MSNBC for the liberal left. Once they have made up their mind about immigration or cop killers, it is doubtful that looking at a Facebook ad will intensify their feelings.

I have a somewhat different take on the question of Russian interference than others on the left, especially from those who have defended the Kremlin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine. While I don’t particularly care about some stupid Facebook ad, I do resent the role played by Russian media in covering up for Russian war crimes. In the past six years, there have been countless posts on Twitter and Facebook defending Russian intervention. Unlike trolls and bots, the authors of such material do not use German supermodels as profile photos. RT.com has made it possible for people like John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Max Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry, Vanessa Beeley and Robert Parry to defend the dictatorship’s scorched-earth tactics.

There is no question that the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC are lying, warmongering, neoliberal sacks of shit but it does not help the left to go on RT.com to back Putin. Of course, when you are in it for the money like Max Blumenthal, there are incentives to twist the truth into a knot.

Finally, on the question of “social media”. I regard Twitter as inimical to the exchange of ideas and an important element in the dumbing down of American society—unless you use it for nothing except linking to an article posted somewhere else. Given its 140 character limit, it is next to useless and can lead to disastrous effects on leftwing professors who use it to ventilate. When they get in trouble at their university for some rant about Donald Trump or whatever, they always end up trying to explain what they really meant. Maybe they should have been blogging in the first place like Juan Cole or Michael Roberts if the intention was to raise the level of consciousness.

Facebook is a bit better but not by much. By and large, people write things off the top of their head and without the care you see on a mailing list or the comments section of a blog. The other day, someone challenged my interpretation of fascist economics by referring to Pinochet’s failure to privatize the copper mines. I replied that this was a very interesting point and invited him to expand on it as a guest post on my blog. He declined my invitation.

I have 2,249 friends on FB and 911 followers on Twitter while following 273. Of all these 3,000 souls (taking overlap into account), I probably know 50 or so as genuine friends, even if the friendship is based only on email exchanges. What exactly is “social” about all this? I have no idea.

Back in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg began working on the software that would become Facebook. It was intended for use by college students and hardly in line with what it eventually became:

We had books called Face Books, which included the names and pictures of everyone who lived in the student dorms. At first, he built a site and placed two pictures, or pictures of two males and two females. Visitors to the site had to choose who was “hotter” and according to the votes there would be a ranking.

Somewhere along the line, it became practically universal and a tool of activists such as during the Arab Spring. I value it today for connecting people and have found it essential for sharing ideas and information about Syria. But is that “social”?

Back in the 60s, there was no Internet. People got together in meetings and discussed strategy for the antiwar movement, the woman’s movement, etc. We are in an odd place today. Very little takes place face-to-face but people are checking their iPhones or laptops all day long for new stuff on FB, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. I sometimes go for weeks without getting a phone call and personal interaction is even less frequent. As social media explodes, society becomes ever more atomized and incapable of mobilizing against the threats to our survival.

Is it possible that this was the original intention? Just asking…

June 24, 2017

Stone and Putin discuss the problem of gays in the shower room

Filed under: homophobia,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

Over the past week or so as I watched Oliver Stone’s interviews with Vladimir Putin, I took copious notes. I originally wanted to answer Putin’s propaganda on Ukraine and Syria but decided instead to hone in on the appalling exchange the two men had in a hockey rink about homosexuality. It is as much a commentary on Stone as it is on Putin. In a somewhat lame attempt to show that he didn’t care for bigotry, Stone included footage of gay rights supporters getting hassled by the Russian police but that hardly made up for him asking Putin about being on a submarine with a known homosexual. “Would there be any problem with that?”, asked Stone. Putin replied, “Well, I prefer not to go in the shower with him. Why provoke him?”, laughing heartily. He added, “But you know I am a judo master and a SAMBO master as well.” When I saw the reference to SAMBO, I wondered if first the Russian president was referring to the racist children’s tale but it turned out to be the acronym for SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya, which literally translates as “self-defense without weapons”, a martial arts practice the Red Army inaugurated in the 1920s.

What was Putin trying to say? That if some gay sailor tried to make a pass at him in the shower, he’d use his martial arts mastery to protect his heterosexual manhood? It reminds me of the old Burns and Schreiber taxi cab skit. Burns is a very macho passenger and Schreiber a typical Jewish cab driver back in the day when they were common. Somehow, the subject of ballet comes up and Burns assures Schreiber if he ever ran into a ballet dancer, he’d punch him out. This skit was from the early 60s and a pointed commentary on the bigotry that was universal at the time.

And why the fuck would Stone even ask such a stupid question to begin with? This is the same thing you heard to justify keeping gay and lesbian soldiers in the closet. And then after that, excusing professional sports homophobia. Scott Cooper, an out of the closet college football player, showed how absurd these worries were in an article on Generation Outsports:

Let’s first talk showers and football, since that seems to be a big concern for some players, especially in light of Michael Sam coming out. I played high school football for four years, and college football for three, and I was out to my teammates in college. After hours of hard practice in 105-degree August heat, I was hot, sweaty, sore, bruised, tired and hungry. Hitting on my teammates was the last thing on my mind. Never mind that they were like my brothers and weren’t my type; I just wanted nothing more than to rinse off the turf and sweat and get some Gatorade and grub.

Putin takes great pains to point out that there is no persecution of gays in Russia but defends the law that bans homosexual propaganda since it is meant to prevent teachers and the like from converting their students to an “alternative” life style in the same vein as Communist teachers being fired in the 50s so their students wouldn’t stop believing in capitalism. What stupidity. A 14 year old boy or girl knows what their sexual preferences are at that point and would not be susceptible to “propaganda”. And what would that mean, anyhow? Assigning them Allen Ginsberg poems?

Putin lays it on the line. As head of state, he sees his duty as upholding traditional values and family values. When asked by Stone what that entails, he replies that same-sex marriages will not produce children. “God has decided, and we have to care about birth rates in our country. We have to reinforce families.”

In a lame attempt to entice Putin into sounding less disgusting, Stone refers to the possibility that in a society with “dysfunctions”, there might be children in orphanages who need a more supportive environment, even if it is gay or lesbian parents that adopt them. He replies, “I cannot say our society welcomes that, and I’m quite frank about that.”

For me, the whole Russiagate question is a joke. I say that as someone who is sympathetic to Putin pointing out in the fourth and final episode of the interviews that the USA has meddled in Russian elections ever since the fall of the USSR, not to speak of a country like Nicaragua whose elections the CIA, the NED and other American agencies subverted with impunity.

However, what troubles me greatly is that many of the people who scream the loudest about the investigations pushed by the Democrats are aligned with Stone on the need to defend Putin tout court.

Why would the left find Putin so attractive? I think to some extent it is his animal magnetism that must have drawn Stone to him as well. When he is not asking Putin softball questions of the sort that Charlie Rose might ask Barack Obama, he is oohing and aahing over Putin’s physical assets. It resonates eerily with Ronald Reagan’s popularity among college boys who kept posters of the Gipper chopping wood at his ranch on their dormitory walls.

Is it possible that Oliver Stone has a thing about gays? Remember “JFK”, his dramatically compelling but ideologically nonsensical film blaming the “deep state” for killing his idol? One of the co-conspirators, according to Jim Garrison, was Clay Shaw who was played by Tommy Lee Jones as a stereotypical flamboyant homosexual. He and two other in the cabal are portrayed as “a trio of debauched New Orleans homosexuals who dress up like Marie Antoinette and Mercury and flog one another with chains” as John Weir pointed out in a NY Times article about Hollywood gay-bashing.

This homosexual phobia did not always exist in Russia. The late Leslie Feinberg, a lesbian and transgender activist who was a member of the Workers World Party that unfortunately veers toward Putinphilia, was an expert on the changes produced by a proletarian revolution.

The Russian Revolution breathed new life into the international sexual reform movement, the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement, and the revolutionary struggle as a whole in Germany and around the world.

It was a historic breakthrough when the Soviet Criminal Code was established in 1922 and amended in 1926, and homosexuality was not included as an offense. The code also applied to other republics, including the Ukrainian Republics. Only sex with youths under the age of 16, male and female prostitution and pandering were listed. Soviet law did not criminalize the person being prostituted, but those who exploited them.

All that changed under Stalin, who recriminalized homosexuality in 1933 with punishments up to 5 years. My friend, the artist Yevgeniy Fiks, wrote a book titled “Moscow” that incorporated a letter from a British CP’er named Harry Whyte that challenged the anti-homosexual laws that can be read on Ross Wolfe’s website. Whyte was quite eloquent:

But science has established the existence of constitutional homosexuals. Research has shown that homosexuals of this type exist in approximately equal proportions within all classes of society. We can likewise consider as established fact that, with slight deviations, homosexuals as a whole constitute around two percent of the population. If we accept this proportion, then it follows that there are around two million homosexuals in the USSR. Not to mention the fact that amongst these people there are no doubt those who are aiding in the construction of socialism, can it really be possible, as the March 7 law demands, that such a large number of people be subjected to imprisonment?

Just as the women of the bourgeois class suffer to a significantly lesser degree from the injustices of the capitalist regime (you of course remember what Lenin said about this), so do natural-born homosexuals of the dominant class suffer much less from persecution than homosexuals from the working-class milieu. It must be said that even within the USSR there are conditions that complicate the daily lives of homosexuals and often place them in a difficult situation. (I have in mind the difficulty of finding a partner for the sexual act, insofar as homosexuals constitute a minority of the population, a minority that is forced to conceal its true proclivities to one degree or another.)

I accept that many on the left admire Putin but I am content to be in a minority opposing him, especially since he has described Lenin as the worst thing that ever happened to Russia and because he has presided over a revival of Stalin-idolization in Russia that goes hand in hand with his ties to the Russian Orthodoxy. My idea of socialism owes a lot to the early days of the USSR when all sorts of social norms were being challenged, just as they were when I was in my 20s and the USA was boiling over with challenges to sexism, homophobia, racism and war. I can understand why Putin would be an object of Stone’s affection. There is a deep need for a father figure on the left in a time of great turbulence and that is certainly what Putin projects. For me, the 1950s and early 60s was a dreadful time when television shows like “Father Knows Best” were popular and when you could routinely hear men being referred to as “faggots”, even at a place like Bard College. I don’t care if I am the last person on the left to find Putin a symbol of bigotry and medieval backwardness. At this stage of the game, if I haven’t reached the point of having self-confidence in my own socialist values, I might as well cash it in.

May 7, 2017

Lars Lih versus Nikolai Sukhanov: who is more credible on “old Bolshevism”?

Filed under: Lenin,Russia — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Nikolai Sukhanov

It is difficult to tell whether Lars Lih had any ulterior motives in trying to establish Kamenev and Stalin as superior theoretically to Trotsky on the dynamics of the October 1917 revolution since he has so little to say beyond the boundaries of a relatively narrow chronological framework. He puts 1917 under a microscope in order to establish that “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was never rejected by Lenin no matter what he said in the April Theses and that Kamenev/Stalin’s differences with Lenin were minor in comparison to those that existed between Lenin and Trotsky.

Does Lih have any interest in writing about how “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was applied to the Chinese revolution? If Stalin had such a keen understanding of Marxism and the superiority of this strategic goal to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, how did China end up so disastrously for Chinese workers in 1927 following Stalin’s instructions a decade after his superiority was demonstrated? Inquiring minds are dying to know.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to go into such questions. Instead I will stay within the same narrow framework as him but hope to shed light on the role of Kamenev in “old Bolshevism” by referring to someone totally outside of the Trotskyist orthodoxy that Lih considers so unreliable. I have already referred to Alexander Rabinowitch, a historian with no links to Trotskyism, who wrote in “Prelude to Revolution”:

But all this changed in the middle of March with the return from Siberia of Kamenev, Stalin, and M. K. Muranov and their subsequent seizure of control of Pravda. Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day.

Well, who knows? Maybe Rabinowitch was briefly a member of the Young Socialist Alliance and took classes with George Novack. I don’t remember running into him at Oberlin. That certainly would rule him out as a reliable source. Did he fabricate the Stalin quote about the slogan “Down with the War” being useless? If he did, I must denounce him as a rascal.

Now you certainly can’t ever suspect Nikolai Sukhanov of being a Trotskyist. Between 1919 and 1921 Sukhanov wrote a seven-volume memoir of the Russian Revolution that obviously would have not been a transmission belt of Trotskyist ideology, especially since he was a leading member of the Mensheviks. Based on what I have seen in the 686 page abridged version of this tome published by Princeton University Press in 1984, I wish that someone would translate the entire work into English one of these days since it is an important scholarly resource and a very lively read. What follows are excerpts from “The Russian Revolution of 1917” with my introduction to each one that have a bearing on the dubious effort to elevate Kamenev and “old Bolshevik” orthodoxy. (Stalin is mostly ignored in Sukhanov’s book.)

[page 191. Molotov, who later became famous for his cocktail, speaks to a Congress of Soviet meeting in favor of power passing from the Provisional Government to the “hands of the democracy”, which probably meant the Soviets. Sukhanov points out that he was speaking only for himself.]

Throughout the course of the revolution, down to October the problem of the relations between the official Government and the Soviets kept obtruding itself. This problem, however, was always conceived of and treated as a political problem, which the question at issue was political relations. But in this case the question was concerned with the organizational and technical interrelationships (and extremely complicated ones at that.)

It is natural that in the midst of a still fiercely raging struggle for the new order, not all those present at the meeting [on March 1] grasp and clarify all this. And the debate was diffuse, incoherent and confused. A whole series of speakers started talking precisely about political relations, about ‘support’ for the provisional Government, ‘reciprocity’, ‘insofar as … ‘ a negative attitude towards the bourgeoisie, and so on. Consequently talk took us back to the Ex. Comm. session of March 1st, in which conditions and a programme for the future Cabinet were elaborated.

I remember especially well a speech by the Bolshevik Molotov. This official party representative only now collected his thoughts and for the first time began talking about the necessity of all political power to pass into the hands of the democracy. He didn’t suggest anything concrete, but he advanced precisely this principle—instead of ‘control’ over the bourgeois Government and ‘pressure’ on it.

But it turned out that not only was Molotov speaking as an irresponsible critic, who could find fault because he was doing nothing and not suggesting anything concrete; it seemed, besides, the opinion he expressed was not at all that of his party or at least of those of its leaders who were available. On the following day we learned from the papers that on March 3rd the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks had declared that ‘it would not oppose the authority of the Provisional Government insofar as its activities corresponded to the interests of the proletariat and the broad democratic masses of the people’, and announced ‘its decision to carry on the most implacable struggle against any attempts of the Provisional government to restore the monarchist regime in any form whatsoever’.

[pp. 289-292. Lenin’s April Theses were “lunatic ideas” according to the “old Bolsheviks”. Sukhanov’s words reek of hostility to the working class but attest to the clash with party leaders like Kamenev who would fall into the position of “outlaws” and “internal traitors.”]

About a week after his arrival the famous First Theses of Lenin were printed in Pravda, in the form of an article. They contained a résumé of the new doctrine expounded in his speeches; they lacked the same thing as his speeches: an economic programme and a Marxist analysis of the objective conditions of our revolution. The Theses were published in Lenin’s name alone: not one Bolshevik organization, or group, or even individual had joined him. And the editors of Pravda for their part thought it necessary to emphasize Lenin’s isolation and their independence of him. ‘As for Lenin’s general schema,’ wrote Pravda, ‘it seems us unacceptable, in so far as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois democratic revolution is finished and counts the immediate conversion of that revolution into a Socialist revolution.’

It appeared that the Marxist foundations of the Bolshevik Party were firm, that the Bolshevik party mass had taken up arms to defend against Lenin the elementary foundations of scientific Socialism, Bolshevism itself, and the old traditional Lenin.

Alas! Many people, including myself, were vainly deluded: Lenin compelled his Bolsheviks to accept his ‘lunatic ideas’ in their entirety. How and why did this happen? I have no intention of investigating this interesting question au fond, nevertheless I don’t think it superfluous here to note a few undoubted factors in the capitulation of the old Social-Democratic Bolshevism to Lenin’s reckless anarcho-seditious system.

That is how matters stood in the Bolshevik general staff. As for the mass of party officers, they were far from distinguished. Amongst the Bolshevik officers there were many first-rate technicians in party and professional work, and not a few ‘romantics’, but extremely few political thinkers and conscious Socialists.

In consequence every form of radicalism and external Leftism had an invincible attraction for the Bolshevik mass, while the natural ‘line’ of work consisted of demagogy. This was very often all the political wisdom of the Bolshevik committee-men boiled down to.

Thus the ‘party public’ of course quite lacked the strength or internal resources to oppose anything whatever to Lenin’s onslaught.

Lenin’s radicalism, his heedless ‘Leftism’, and primitive demagogy, unrestrained either by science or common sense, later secured his success among the broadest proletarian-muzhik masses who had had no other teaching than that of the Tsarist whip. But the same characteristics of this Leninist propaganda also seduced the more backward, less literate elements of the party itself. Very soon after Lenin’s arrival they were faced by an alternative: either keep the old principles of Social-Democracy and Marxist science, but without Lenin, without the masses, and without the party; or stay with Lenin and the party and conquer the masses together in an easy way, having thrown overboard the obscure, unfamiliar Marxist principles. It’s understandable that the mass of party Bolsheviks, though after some vacillation, decided on the latter.

But the attitude of this mass could not help but have a decisive influence on the fully-conscious Bolshevik elements too, on the Bolshevik generals, for after Lenin’s conquest of the officers of the party, people like Kamenev, for instance, were completely isolated; they had fallen into the position of outlaws and internal traitors. And the implacable Thunderer soon subjected them, together with other infidels, to such abuse that not all of them could endure it. It goes without saying that the generals, even those who had read Marx and Engels, were incapable of sustaining such an ordeal. And Lenin won victory after another.

[pp. 225-227. For obvious reasons, Lars Lih devotes very few words to the question of Kamenev’s views on Russia continuing the war. As indicated by the Rabinowitch citation above, this was the source of the real tension with the “old Bolsheviks” and not over whether the democratic dictatorship had been consummated or not. Kamenev is basically recruiting this Menshevik leader to write for Pravda and not to worry about whether his views on the war clashed with Lenin’s. Unless Lih comes to terms with these issues, his historiography will have a huge hole stuck in its middle.]

As a political figure Kamenev was undoubtedly an exceptional, though not an independent, force. Lacking either sharp corners, great intellectual striking power, or original language, he was not fitted to be a leader; by himself he had nowhere to lead the masses. Left alone he would not fail to be assimilated by someone. It was always necessary to take him in tow, and if he sometimes balked it was never very violently. But as one member of a leading group Kamenev, with his political schooling and supreme oratorical gifts, was extremely distinguished and amongst the Bolsheviks he was in many respects irreplaceable.

Personally he was gentle and good-hearted. All this taken together added up to his role in the Bolshevik Party. He always stood on its Right, conciliationist, passive wing. And sometimes he would balk, defending evolutionary methods or a moderate political course. At the beginning of the revolution he jibbed against Lenin, jibbed at the October Revolution jibbed at the general havoc and terror after the revolt, jibbed on supply questions in the second year of the Bolshevik regime. But—he always surrendered on all points. Not having much faith in himself, he recently (in the autumn of 1918) said to me, in order to justify himself in his own eyes: ‘As for myself I am more and more convinced that Lenin never makes a mistake. In the last analysis he is always right. How often has it seemed that he was slipping up—either in his prognosis or in his political line! But in the last analysis his prognosis and his line were always justified.’

Here is what Kamenev wanted to talk to me about then:

‘About the article in Pravda: our people have told you must first declare yourself a Bolshevik. That’s all nonsense no attention to it; please write the article. Here is the point. D’you read Pravda? You know, it has a completely unseemly and unsuitable tone. It has a terrible reputation. When I got here I was in despair. What could be done? I even thought of shutting down this Pravda altogether and getting out a new central organ under a different name. But that’s impossible. In our party too much is bound up with the name Pravda. It must stay. It’ll be necessary to shift the paper into a new course. So now I’m to attract contributors or get hold of a few articles by writers with some reputation. Go ahead and write…’

All this was curious. I began asking Kamenev what was being done in general and in which direction a ‘line’ was being defined in his party circles. What was Lenin thinking and writing? We strolled about the Catherine Hall for a long with Kamenev trying at some length to persuade me that his party was taking up or ready to take up a most ‘reasonable’ (from my point of view) position. This position, as he put it, wall close to that taken by the Soviet Zimmerwald centre [ie., Kautskyism], if not identical with it. Lenin? Lenin thought that up to now the revolution was being accomplished quite properly and that a bourgeois Government was now historically indispensable.

`Does that mean you are not going to overthrow the bourgeois Government yet and don’t insist on an immediate democratic regime?’ I tried to get this out of Kamenev, who was showing me what I thought important perspectives.

‘We here don’t insist on that, nor does Lenin over there. He writes that our immediate task now is—to organize and mobilize our forces.’

‘But what do you think about current foreign policy? What about an immediate peace?’

‘You know that for us the question cannot be put that way. Bolshevism has always maintained that the World War can ended by a world proletarian revolution. And as long as not taken place, as long as Russia continues the war, we are against any disorganization and for maintaining the front.’

[p. 257. This repeats the points made above, namely that Kamenev veered toward the Menshevik position on continuing the war.]

The sections of the [Congress of Soviet] Conference began to work on the morning of the 30th. 1 was forced into the agrarian section, which was full of nothing but soldiers. I left without entering into the useless wrangling.

Kamenev showed me a Bolshevik resolution on the war, which was of course doomed to defeat. It appeared to me that the Zimmerwaldites ought to vote for this resolution, and to do it to make clear the relative voting strength of the two sides. But there was a suspicious point in the resolution, to the effect that the imperialist war could be ended only with transfer of political power to the working class. Did this mean that the struggle for peace was not necessary at that moment? Or did it mean that it was necessary, but that therefore political power had to be taken into one’s own hands at once? Kamenev assured me that it meant neither the one nor the other. But he responded extremely evasively to the suggestion that this point be altered, and tried to eliminate the misunderstanding by remarks alone. Meanwhile everyone who had read this resolution maintained that the Bolsheviks were demanding political power for the working class.

Where did the truth lie? Kamenev, in giving a ‘benevolent’ interpretation of the resolution, was doubtless trying dutifully to retain in it the official Bolshevik idea: that the conclusion of the imperialist war was only possible by way of a Socialist revolution. But I also had no doubt that Kamenev didn’t sympathize with this official Bolshevik idea considered it unrealistic, and was trying to follow a line of struggle for peace in the concrete circumstances of the moment. All the actions of the then leader of the Bolshevik party had just this kind of `possibilist’, sometimes too moderate, character. His position was ambiguous, and not easy. He had his own views, and was working on Russian revolutionary soil. But—he was casting a ‘sideways’ look abroad, where they had their own views, which were not quite the same as his.

April 24, 2017

Tony Wood on Russia

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Tony Wood

This weekend I went to the Historical Materialism conference in NY held at NYU that is basically an academic conference with presentations by graduate students and professors. Unlike the Left Forum that meets in early June, you won’t find any 9/11 Truther or Assadist panel discussions. That’s the upside. The downside is that you are likely to hear someone read a jargon-filled paper on their brand-new interpretation of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony for 15 to 20 minutes until your eyelids feel like they have been tied to anvils.

I went to hear Lars Lih and Eric Blanc defend Stalin and Kamenev as closer to Lenin on theorizing the Bolshevik revolution than Trotsky but was far more interested in hearing what Todd Chretien had to say in response. Todd was very good but far too civil. I would have thrown a pie in Lih’s face myself.

I only wish I had been able to hear George Ciccariello-Maher speak at a “Roundtable on Training Political Cadre: Historical Lessons and Currents [sic] Methods”. His insights on turning over garbage bins as a currents methods to stop fascism must have really wowed all the sociology students.

Instead of running down every panel discussion I attended, I want to touch on a couple of high points in this post and a follow-up tomorrow. The first today will recap Tony Wood’s presentation on Putin’s Russia that was included in a panel titled “Critical Geopolitics Today” and the one tomorrow will be about how CUNY adjuncts are pressing for their demands in the Professional Staff Congress (PSC).

I am not sure about Wood’s background but right now he is working on a PhD in Latin American History at NYU, which might explain how he ended up speaking at the conference. Wood is best known as a Russia specialist and has been around for a while. Since he would likely be close to 50 after getting a PhD in Latin American History and qualified at that point for getting a position as an adjunct like the people I will be talking about tomorrow, I am not sure why he is bothering. But good luck to him anyhow since he is fucking brilliant.

If you want to know how I became a CIA agent pushing for regime change in Syria, you can blame it all on Wood. You have to understand that during the war in Kosovo, I opposed the KLA that I considered a tool of NATO in the same way that many people today regard the FSA in Syria. Someday I might revisit the debates I had with Michael Karadjis but as is the case today with respect to Syria, I would have opposed NATO intervention back then whatever the merits of the KLA.

Not long after the Kosovans won their independence, Putin launched the second war on Chechnya. Most people on Marxmail used the same arguments they used about Kosovo that sounded a lot like mine, except they didn’t seem to notice that the Chechens not only had received no aid from the West but were likened to the American secessionists in our Civil War by President Clinton who said:

You say that there are some who say we should have been more openly critical. I think it depends upon your first premise; do you believe that Chechnya is a part of Russia or not? I would remind you that we once had a Civil War in our country in which we lost on a percapita basis far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the 20th century over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.

Clinton, I should add, did view Chechnya as part of Russia.

As Putin began the bombing campaign in Grozny that had all the criminal aspects of his blitzkrieg in East Aleppo, I began to become increasingly put off by the enthusiasm for Putin on Marxmail, including some who went further than Clinton. They likened Putin to Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, a position that I found just as psychotic as the Assadist crap I put up with every day, at least not on Marxmail.

As I began looking for alternative views on Chechnya, I stumbled across Tony Wood’s article in the November-December 2004 NLR that was presented in the name of the editorial board (too bad we never saw anything like that from Tariq Ali et al when it came to Syria.) Wood’s command of the facts and his logic persuaded me that Putin was a counter-revolutionary. Not only that, his methodology primed me to look critically at other struggles that defy the neo-Cold War thinking of people like Mike Whitney, Roger Annis and ten thousand other numbskulls. This excerpt should motivate you to read the entire article:

There can be no greater indictment of Putin’s rule than the present condition of Chechnya. Grozny’s population has been reduced to around 200,000—half its size in 1989—who now eke out an existence amid the moonscape of bomb craters and ruins their city has become. According to UNHCR figures, some 160,000 displaced Chechens remained within the warzone by 2002, while another 160,000 were living in refugee camps in Ingushetia. The latter figure has declined somewhat since—a Médecins Sans Frontières report of August 2004 estimated that around 50,000 Chechen refugees remained in Ingushetia—thanks to the Kremlin’s policy of closing down camps and prohibiting the construction of housing for refugees there. Those forced back to Chechnya live on the brink of starvation, moving from one bombed-out cellar to another, avoiding the routine terror of zachistki and the checkpoints manned by hooded soldiers, where women have to pay bribes of $10 to avoid their daughters being raped, and men aged 15–65 are taken away to ‘filtration camps’ or simply made to disappear. The Russian human rights organization Memorial, which covers only a third of Chechnya, reported that between January 2002 and August 2004, some 1,254 people were abducted by federal forces, of whom 757 are still missing.

Obviously the same game plan that Assad and Putin are using in Syria.

Wood’s talk on Saturday was mostly focused on demonstrating Russia’s weakness. Despite the obsession that many liberals have about Russia as a super-power, the reality is quite different. Except for its nuclear weapons, it is quite weak—especially economically. When it comes to per capita GDP, Russia now ($18,100) ranks lower than Greece ($23,600). This is not just a function of falling oil prices. 10 years ago the comparison was $9,753.30 to $28,899.90—an even greater gap.

In reviewing Russia’s place in the world, Wood asserted that the big change is Putin’s shift away from partnership with the West. Although we tend to think of Putin as the ultimate anti-Yeltsin, there were signs that he hoped to continue Yeltin’s foreign policy but with a greater emphasis on Russia’s rights. Wood startled me by mentioning Putin’s hope during the Clinton administration that Russia would be able to join NATO. This morning, I found a reference to this obscure passage of history fleshed out in a Michael Weiss article titled “When Donald Trump Was More Anti-NATO Than Vladimir Putin”.

“Even before being elected president,” Mikhail Zygar writes in his recent history of the Russian president’s longtime cabal, All the Kremlin’s Men, “Putin asked NATO Secretary General George Robertson at their first meeting, in February 2000, when Russia would be able to join the alliance.” Robertson was not prepared for the question and answered routinely that every country that wanted to join should apply according to the established procedure. “Putin was irked,” writes Zygar. “He was convinced that Russia should not have to wait in line like other countries; on the contrary, it should be invited to join.”

Unlike most on the left, Wood regards Putin’s intervention into Ukraine as a disaster. It has only resulted in sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Demographically, Russia is suffering as well. The population is receding and the percentage of older people increases each year. The only solution to this problem is opening the doors to immigration but that would mean from the Caucasian countries abutting Russia to the south, which is made impossible by the official Islamophobia today.

Much of Wood’s talk was reflected in an LRB article from March 2, 2017 titled “Eat Your Spinach” that is a review of new books on Russia and fortunately not behind a paywall. This excerpt will give you an idea of the weakness of the Russian state that no amount of military adventurism can overcome:

Part of the reason there has been no place for Russia inside the Euro-Atlantic order is that, despite its weakness in the post-Soviet period, it nonetheless remained too large to be absorbed comfortably – especially in a system that revolved around a single, superordinate power. The paradox of Russia’s recent resurgence is that, for all its refusals to fall into line with Washington’s priorities, it is still in no position to mount a frontal challenge to the West. In terms of military might, economic weight and ideological reach, Russia is no match for any of the larger NATO member states, let alone the whole alliance combined. The collapse of the planned economy sent all of the former USSR – already lagging behind the West on any number of indicators – into an economic depression that lasted a decade. In 1999, Putin said that it would take 15 years of rapid growth for Russia to draw level with Portugal’s current level of per capita GDP. It reached that milestone in 2011; but by then Portugal was further ahead, and even amid the deep recession sparked by the Eurozone crisis, its GDP per capita was still more than one and a half times that of Russia. In 2015 Russia devoted around a tenth as much money to its armed forces in absolute terms as the US did, and slightly more than the UK; in per capita terms, it spent somewhat less than Germany or Greece. All told, its 2015 military spending came to around 8 per cent of the total for NATO as a whole; the US accounted for almost 70 per cent of that total.

To be sure, Russia still has one of the largest armies in the world in terms of personnel, though many of them are teenage conscripts. But the 2008 war with Georgia among other things revealed how far behind Russia was in terms of technology and military organisation, prompting a major overhaul and upgrading of weapons; Syria has been the testing ground for some of these new-look forces. Yet what allows Moscow to pose a military threat to its neighbours is not so much the scale or strength of its armies as its readiness to use force in pursuit of its policy goals. This was what enabled it effectively to call NATO’s bluff by invading Georgia in 2008 – causing alarm in Central and Eastern European capitals about the solidity of the alliance’s security guarantees, especially the commitment to ‘collective defence’ in Article 5 of its charter. But the rapid resort to force is in itself an indication of the much cruder means at Russia’s disposal, a sign of its inability to secure the outcomes it wants either through diplomatic persuasion or through economic pressures or inducements. As Trenin observes, ‘the obvious asymmetry in power and status between Russia and the United States leads Moscow to elect the field which it finds more comfortable – military action.’


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