Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2016

Ben Norton completes his Stalinist turn

Filed under: conservatism,Fascism,Spain,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Ben Norton

When someone posted a link to Ben Norton’s attack on George Orwell, my first reaction was to shrug it off. Ever since the lad got fired from Salon for what some speculate as violating their rules against writing for other publications, he has lost his bully pulpit for spreading Assadist lies. (Who really knows if he was canned for writing an article for Intercept? I doubt it was incompetence since Salon’s bar is set rather low in that regard.) Although I have my own problems with Orwell, I was more interested in Norton’s rather crude and reactionary take on Trotskyism that amounts to a defense of Stalin’s betrayal of the Spanish revolution. It has been quite some time since I have had to bother with writing about the Spanish Civil War. To kill two birds with one stone, I hope to demonstrate how Norton has capitulated to Stalinism as well as to make some points about how Franco achieved his victory. Considering the fact that Bashar al-Assad is today’s Generalissimo Franco, it is not surprising that Norton can get Spain so wrong.

Norton writes:

Apologists insist Orwell simply “sold out” later in life and became a cranky conservative, yet the story is more complex. Orwell had a consistent political thread throughout his life. This explains how he could go from fighting alongside a Spanish Trostkyist militia in a multi-tendency war against fascism to demonizing the Soviet Union as The Real Enemy — before returning home to imperial Britain, where he became a social democratic traitor who castigated capitalism while collaborating with the capitalist state against revolutionaries trying to create socialism.

If you take the trouble to clink the link for “a social democratic traitor”, you’ll discover an article written by Norton in 2014 that has not a word about betrayal. In fact, it is the sort of Dr. Jekyll politics he adhered to as a member of the ISO until he turned into Mr. Hyde at Salon. The article, titled “George Orwell, the Socialist” makes useful points, among them:

Schools prefer propagating binary ideological thinking: “Orwell was opposed to Soviet ‘totalitarianism,’ therefore he was not a ‘socialist,’ therefore he was a capitalist, therefore he supported the capitalist West,” the unspoken logic habitually goes. Orwell’s opposition to capitalism is almost never presented, nor is his advocacy of (democratic) socialism.

It is not only schools that prefer propagating binary ideological thinking. It is also the neo-Stalinist left that has rallied around Bashar al-Assad, including Norton, Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, Yoshie Furuhashi, the Socialist Action sect, John Rees et al. By reducing the war in Syria to a geopolitical chess game in which the USA is responsible for everything that has gone wrong, they let Putin and Assad off the hook.

Most of Norton’s article refers to “Animal Farm”, a work that was widely viewed as Cold War propaganda but that was primarily about the Stalinist counter-revolution seen in metaphorical terms. There are some on the left who view it this way, including John Newsinger who defended Orwell’s politics in a 1994 book. Norton characterizes the Orwell who wrote a “snitch” letter to British censors as “the first in a long line of Trots-turned-neocons”, including Christopher Hitchens, yet there is little evidence that either Orwell or even Hitchens had much in common ideologically with men like Paul Wolfowitz or Robert Kagan who were ferociously neoliberal.

For the most part, it was ex-Communists rather than ex-Trotskyists who helped to shape Cold War ideology, such as the six men whose “confessions” can be found in “The God that Failed”: Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright. By comparison, Orwell never wrote anything like this in his later years unless you believe that “1984” and “Animal Farm” were ringing endorsements of Washington and London. In “1984”, the world was divided into hostile camps with London just as culpable of totalitarian control as Moscow. With respect to “Animal Farm”, let’s not forget that the farmers invaded their former realm in exactly the same manner as the 21 invading armies sought to destroy Soviet power.

I have my own problems with Orwell, especially his snitching, but he has much to offer the left. Just read “Homage to Catalonia”, a work far more useful than the Daily Worker articles from 1936 that Norton is channeling. I can say the same thing about Alexander Cockburn, who Norton cites in his article as an authority on this tarnished hero of “the non-Communist left”. I have learned a lot from Cockburn just I have learned a lot from Orwell. I can forgive Orwell for his snitching just as I can forgive Cockburn for allowing CounterPunch to turn into a haven for Islamophobes like Mike Whitney, Andre Vltchek and Pepe Escobar.

As for Hitchens, despite Cockburn’s deep animus for him, the two had something in common with each other when it came to “jihadists”. The difference between them on Iraq in 2003 and Syria after 2011 is paper-thin, after all. Both of these journalists were all too ready to back outside intervention when it came to defeating “al Qaeda” even if it was being administered by a MIG rather than an F-16. In 1980, Cockburn wrote a Village Voice column that stated: “I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets. and unspeakably cruel too.”

Nobody’s perfect, not even Ben Norton whose musings on Syria—and worse his ghoulish tweets—are informed by the same Orientalism as Cockburn’s Voice article. I can say this, however. If Norton lived for a thousand years, he never would be capable of writing a single sentence that would rank with Orwell or Cockburn.

There are three paragraphs in Norton’s article that really stick out like a sore thumb, combining his more recent turn toward the Assad/Putin/Iran reactionary bloc with more traditional Stalinist ideology:

Sure, the USSR did a lot of objectionable things, but it was also the only large country in the entire world that supported the Spanish Republicans in their fight against fascism (excluding a bit of extra support from Mexico). The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.

Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.

Orwell’s politics are social chauvinist in the rawest sense. It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”

Let’s start with the rather stupid observation: “The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.”

I have no idea whether Norton understood what happened in Spain when he was a properly educated ISO member and now rejects it or simply was too intellectually challenged to ever understand the material available to him from state capitalist sources. Or maybe he was just too shallow to ever bother reading something like Tony Cliff’s “Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star”.

As it happens, Norton’s business about defeating the fascist counterrevolution before making the revolution is virtually word for word the same as Spanish Popular Front Prime Minister Largo Caballero’s “First we must win the war and afterwards we can talk of revolution.”

Largo Caballero, who was supported by both the Communists and anarchists, sought to restore bourgeois normalcy in Spain as the first step in defeating Franco. This meant first and foremost eradicating all forms of “dual power” in Spain that were substantial.

Workers and peasant committees had to give way to the rule of the central government as Cliff reports:

IN THE WEEKS after 19 July 1936 struggle continued between proletarian power – in the form of factory and militia committees on the one hand, and the Republican government on the other. The latter won.

One further step to consolidating the power of the bourgeois state was taken on 27 October – a decree disarming the workers.

Steps were also taken to restore the bourgeois police.

In the first months after July 19, police duties were almost entirely in the hands of the workers’ patrols in Catalonia and the ‘militias of the rearguard’ in Madrid and Valencia … The most extraordinary step in reviving the bourgeois police was the mushroom growth of the hitherto small customs force, the Carabineros, under Finance Minister Negrín, into a heavily armed pretorian guard of 40,000.

On 28 February [1937] the Carabineros were forbidden to belong to a political party or a trade union or to attend their mass meetings. The same decree was extended to the Civil and Assault Guards thereafter. That meant quarantining the police against the working class …

By April the militias were finally pushed out of all police duties in Madrid and Valencia.

A comparison Franz Borkenau made of an impression of life in Spain between a first visit in August 1936 and a second in January-February 1937 is very instructive:

The troops were entirely different from the militia I had known in August. There was a clear distinction between officers and men, the former wearing better uniforms and stripes. The pre-revolutionary police force, asaltos and Guardia Civil (now ‘Guardia Nacional Republicana’), were very much in evidence … neither guardia nor asaltos made the least attempt to appear proletarian.

A further vivid description of life in Barcelona at the end of April 1937 comes from the pen of George Orwell:

Now things were returning to normal. The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages. Apart from the expensiveness of everything, there were recurrent shortages of this and that, which, of course, always hit the poor rather than the rich. The restaurants and hotels seemed to have little difficulty in getting whatever they wanted, but in the working-class quarters the queues for bread, olive oil, and other necessaries were hundreds of yards long. Previously in Barcelona I had been struck by the absence of beggars; now there were quantities of them. Outside the delicatessen shops at the top of the Ramblas gangs of bare-footed children were always waiting to swarm round anyone who came out and clamour for scraps of food. The ‘revolutionary’ forms of speech were dropping out of use. Strangers seldom addressed you as  and camarada nowadays; it was usually señor and UstedBuenos días was beginning to replace salud. The waiters were back in their boiled shirts and the shop workers were cringing in their familiar manner … In a furtive indirect way the practice of tipping was coming back … cabaret shows and high-class brothels, many of which had been closed by the workers’ patrols, had promptly reopened.

I strongly recommend reading Cliff’s entire chapter on Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution to get the whole story on how Franco achieved victory over a self-destructive Spanish Republic leadership as well as reviewing the Marxism Internet Archive’s very fine resource page  on the Spanish Civil War that include articles by Leon Trotsky and Felix Morrow whose “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain” can be read in its entirety there as well.

I am struck by Orwell’s description of how things were returning to normal. “The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages.”

Isn’t this exactly how some reporters describe life in Damascus except for those like Vanessa Beeley or Eva Bartlett for whom the working-class does not exist? As outright supporters of Syria’s Franco, this is understandable but what is more difficult to understand is how people like Norton, who at least demonstrates an affinity for the Popular Front’s desire for bourgeois democratic normalcy, would end up as a kind of fascist apologist.

What accounts for someone educated in Marxist politics (speaking charitably) such as Norton ending up adopting the anti-Marxist sentiments of Largo Caballero, whose opposition to socialist revolution was primarily responsible for Franco’s victory?

I would say that the left is dealing with neo-Stalinist tendencies today that share many of the same impulses as those demonstrated by the original. Norton writes:

Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.

This business about living comfortable lives in imperialist countries is pure demagogy as if Norton, who apparently comes from wealth himself, ever had to duck barrel bombs in hipster Brooklyn. With respect to “ideological purity”, this is a very telling complaint. What Norton is trying to say is that Marxism does not serve his goals. When class politics interfere with a career in journalism, why remain committed to them? The journals that he aspires to write for have little use for the sort of class rigor found in Leon Trotsky, whose ideas would only appeal to those who have made up their mind that socialism is the only alternative to barbarism, not the renewed Democratic Party called for in countless Salon, Huffington Post, Alternet, CommonDreams and Nation Magazine articles

Norton finally connects the dots between his Assadism and Popular Front Stalinism in the third paragraph cited above, issuing questionable statements such as this:

It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”

One assumes that he is referring to the ISO here since it is the only group on the left of any significance that has opposed both Assad and the late Fidel Castro. But what evidence is there that the ISO admires Orwell? The only reference to Orwell in the entire ISO website is this: “As George Orwell said in Why I Write, good prose is like a window pane. He meant good writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but to the ideas, facts and events that the writing is about.”

I believe that this makes perfect sense, even if the man who wrote the words was capable of exercising poor judgement in “naming names”. I only wish that Norton would have stumbled across this during the time he spent in the ISO since he is so flawed when it comes to drawing attention to ideas, facts and events in his sad attempt at professional journalism.

July 11, 2016

Rooting for the Bulls

Filed under: animal rights,Spain — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

The news that a bull had gored a matador to death for the first time since 1985 got me thinking about this barbaric “sport” the same day I saw “At the Fork”, the powerful documentary  about humane livestock breeding. My immediate reaction was to root for the home team—the bulls.

The same day there was another home team victory. Two men got gored during the Pamplona bull run, the yearly event that was celebrated in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”, a novel that romanticized bullfighting and the macho values we associate with the morally questionable novelist.

To get a handle on this barbaric practice, I looked at Adrian Shubert’s “Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight”, a 1999 Oxford University book. It is much more of a dispassionate scholarly work than the one I would have preferred to read, namely Timothy Mitchell’s “Blood Sport” but was immediately available as a Columbia University EBook. I will allow Schubert to supply the history while I will try to supply the passion.

Although the origins of bullfighting are shrouded in mystery, we do know that by the 11th century it had become entrenched in Spanish society as a pastime of the aristocracy. El Cid, the aristocrat and military leader who was celebrated in an epic poem and who fought both with and against Muslims, was into bullfighting. Like other aristocrats, he was on horseback and used a lance to kill the animals. The noblemen had underlings who fought on foot alongside them using swords against the bull. These two roles continue to this day in the bullfighting ring with the horse-mounted picador and the grounded matador, who has assumed the lead role once assigned to men like El Cid.

By the 1700s, bullfighting had become much more than a sport for the aristocrats. It had become a major source of revenue for public expenditures just like the lottery is today. It paid for good things like hospitals and bad things like the military.

Schubert identifies Francisco Romero as a key figure in the transformation of bullfighting into a mass, money-making spectacle. Born in 1700, Romero was a shoemaker by trade but became involved in bullfighting by assisting a nobleman who fought on horseback just as was the case in El Cid’s day. After becoming adept in the “sport”, he began to give exhibitions of fighting bulls on foot that climaxed with a single sword thrust. By 1726 he had become famous and gave bullfighting the impetus it needed to become a combination of entertainment and revenue generator. By 1749 Madrid had its first bullring and five years later King Ferdinand VI designated it a source of funding for municipal hospitals.

With the rise of the royalist state, the bullring became a microcosm of Spanish society. The seating was segregated by class and the rituals attending the matches were as stylized as the Super Bowl, which in its way performs the same function in American society today.

They performed the same role in the colonies of the New World as Schubert reports:

The new rulers of America wasted little time in introducing this spectacle of power to their recently conquered domains. Beginning in 1529, Mexico City celebrated San Hipólito’s Day, the day on which Hernán Cortés had conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán only ten years before, with a bullfight, and from 1535 on the entry of new viceroys into the capital of New Spain was marked with a series of bullfights.

When the Spanish empire began to crumble, the same colonies began to associate killing bulls for sport with their masters, especially in Cuba. For José Martí, the bullfight was “a futile, bloody spectacle …and against Cuban sentiment as being intimately linked with our colonial past.” Instead the Cubans preferred baseball that the colonial authorities viewed as “anti-Spanish” and had it banned from 1873 to 1874. The ban was reimposed in 1895 just after the war of Independence began. Cubans in Tampa and Key West held baseball games to raise money for the war effort and U.S. military authorities quickly banned bullfighting once they took possession of the island.

After Spain’s defeat, Spanish intellectuals tried to understand why their country was so weak and so decadent. Known as the Generation of 1898, they saw the American victory less in terms of the futility of colonization and more as an expression of their own problems. José Ortega y Gasset, the best known of this group, viewed bullfighting as expressing “pornography without voluptuousness”, “ridiculous Don Juanism” and denounced it as follows: “In sum, whatever has to do with enthusiasm, grace, arrogance, sumptuousness, everything, everything is made negative, corrupted, bastardized, deteriorated, because of those emanations that come from the bullrings to the city and from here to the countryside.”

If bullfighting was a symbol of Spain’s feudal past, essentially a product of the failure to carry out a bourgeois revolution, it naturally follows that General Franco would see it in the same terms as the 18th century monarchs—a way to express the hierarchy and “traditional values” going back to the 11th century and earlier. Schubert was a bit surprised to see that the left backed bullfighting as well. “In 1937 there was even one in Republican Alicante to raise money for the Communist Party militias. (The bulls might have come from the Popular Front Ranch [Ganadería del Frente Popular]!)” One can’t blame him for not having a sharper class analysis but it is obvious that the willingness of the Popular Front to use bullfighting to raise money might have something to do with its failure to retain power. Its inability to confront the Ancien Régime was its undoing after all.

The people of Catalonia were far more willing to carry out a social revolution in the 1930s than other Spaniards, largely as a result of experiencing Spanish power in the same way that the Cubans did—as a colony but one that was internal rather than external. In 2010, they finally caught up with Franco’s legacy and eliminated one of the pillars of fascist culture as Joe O’Connor reported in a National Post article on July 30, 2010 that cited Adrian Schubert:

Originally, the Catalans were separate, a kingdom unto themselves known as Aragon, with a distinct language, governing institutions and customs that persisted long after the birth of the Kingdom of Spain in 1469.

By the end of the 18th century bullfighting, as we picture it today, was already fully developed as a commercial enterprise. It was the first form of mass entertainment in Western society. Arenas dotted the Spanish landscape. Stars were worshipped like matinee idols. Festivals would end with a bullfight, followed by a feast. People loved it, even in Catalonia, the first region in Spain to industrialize and, by the 1850s, the wealthiest.

“A Catalan nationalist movement emerged in the 1850s,” says Adrian Shubert, a historian at York University. “The Catalans saw themselves as more sophisticated, more European, more advanced economically than the rest of the country.”

And the future, to the Catalans, was to be European, and being European meant no more bullfights. Bullfighting was a symbol of Spanish backwardness, of barbarity, a tradition unbecoming a progressive people. To the rest of Spain, bullfighting was the people; it was Castilian virility, artistry and bravery in the face of death.

“Franco detested the Catalans,” Mr. Shubert says. “He saw them as separatists and a threat to the unity of the Fatherland.”

Under Franco, the Catalan language was banned in public, and banished from media. Nationalism went underground and wouldn’t emerge again until after the general’s death in 1975.

Sooner or later bullfighting will die out entirely in Spain since young people raised in post-Franco Spain see it as inimical to their values. It is no longer the cash cow it once was and is mostly the pastime of an older generation and tourists seeking “the real Spain”.

CAS International, the largest worldwide organization committed to ending bullfighting, advises tourists on its website:

As a tourist, you can also help us in our fight to end bullfighting. A few tips:

  • Never go to a bullfight or a cruel patronal event, not even once. If you go to these events, your money and presence support the bullfighting industry. Ask other people to follow your example
  • Do not buy any bullfighting souvenirs
  • Let shop keepers know (in a polite manner) why you don’t want to buy bullfighting souvenirs. You can use our Spanish, French or Portuguese letter.
  • Do not eat or drink in bars and restaurants that promote bullfighting.

Among the tourists visiting Spain, a certain amount of them will be testosterone-laden men in their 20s who take part in the Pamplona bull run possibly without understanding its connection to what takes place in the ring. In fact, the run terminates at the bullring where the animals will be sacrificed at the altar to the traditional values of medieval Spain as Vox reports:

Veterinarians Susan Krebsbach and Mark Jones also tried to scientifically evaluate the suffering endured by bulls by showing video recordings of 28 bullfights to three independent veterinarians, who then graded the animals’ distress. They found that animals were typically wounded more than 10 times every fight, and that signs of distress like tail swishing, slowing down due to exhaustion, reluctance to move, and labored breathing were all common.

“The frequency with which bulls during bullfights exhibit behaviors identified as indicators of distress, suggest that fighting bulls experience distress — they suffer in the bull ring,” Krebsbach and Jones conclude.

It should not be particularly surprising that bullfighting inflicts massive amounts of pain on the roughly 250,000 bulls it kills annually. There’s plenty of evidence in the literature on dairy cows suggesting that cattle are capable of feeling pain. For instance, experiments have shown that giving painkillers to dairy cattle improves their gait — suggesting that they were feeling pain, and that alleviating that pain made walking easier. Cows’ behavior suggests an ability to feel emotion, as they warm to people who pet them and produce less milk among people who frighten them.

They’re also remarkably intelligent. “Cows can not only solve simple problems but they become excited when a solution is found,” researchers F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk write in Compassion by the Pound. “Cows can be trained to perform simple feats, such as pushing a lever for food, and they can read certain signs. Cows are especially adept at remembering directions and geographic locations, and at recognizing their peers.”

This is the animal that’s being tormented in a bullfight, that’s being stabbed repeatedly and having its organs pierced and ruptured.

In 1936 Munro Leaf wrote a children’s book titled “Ferdinand the Bull” whose eponymous hero preferred smelling flowers in the pasture to butting heads with other bulls or—naturally enough—being the prey of a matador.

The book was treated as a Rorschach test by the media at the time, which saw Ferdinand as either a fascist or a communist. The fascists themselves had no problem deciphering the message. Franco banned it as a pacifist work while Adolph Hitler ordered it to be burned as “degenerate democratic propaganda”. Following the Nazi defeat, the Americans handed out 30,000 copies to Germany’s children in order to encourage peace even as they were smuggling top Nazi officials out of harm’s way in order to build up a reliable anti-Communist resource.

Ever the jerk, Hemingway wrote a short story in 1951 titled “The Faithful Bull” that was intended to refute Munro Leaf. It ends this way:

So the man sent him away with five other bulls to be killed in the ring, and at least the bull could fight, even though he was faithful. He fought wonderfully and everyone admired him and the man who killed him admired him the most. But the fighting jacket of the man who killed him and who is called the matador was wet through by the end, and his mouth was very dry.

Que toro más bravo,” the matador said as he handed his sword to his sword handler. He handed it with the hilt up and the blade dripping with the blood from the heart of the brave bull who no longer had any problems of any kind and was being dragged out of the ring by four horses.

I have never read “Ferdinand the Bull” but I have good memories of the Disney cartoon that is completely faithful to the original.

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