Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2018

Commentary on Sovietologist Stephen Kotkin

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

Two days ago, I was invited by an old Bardian (literally and figuratively) to comment on the lecture above given by Stephen Kotkin to the National History Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington:

Take the time to listen to and watch this video in its entirety.

It deals with the Soviet Union and Communism, Socialism, Fascism, the “Popular Front” in the Spanish Civil War, the Russian Finish Winter War, the Russian Japanese War war and the latter’s influence on Stalin’s invasion of Poland, the personalities of Stalin and Hitler as different types of gamblers, and many other topics.

Needless to say, these are questions that I have dealt with for the past half-century but from a different perspective than Kotkin, who is a Sovietologist in the mode of Richard Pipes, Adam Ulam, Robert Conquest, Martin Malia, et al. I confess to having never read a Sovietologist except for Stephen F. Cohen, who taught at Princeton like Kotkin. Although not a Marxist, Cohen was a scrupulous scholar, even being asked to be a witness for the SWP in its suit against the FBI in the 1970s. I was at the trial when Cohen told Judge Griesa that the Russian Revolution was backed by the overwhelming majority of the population and not a violent coup.

Kotkin, on the other hand, has referred to it in v. 1 of his biography of Josef Stalin, “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928”, as “the Bolshevik putsch”; “the Bolshevik October 1917 coup, nominally against the Provisional Government but really against the Soviet”; “the far-fetched Bolshevik coup”; “this crazy putsch”; and “Lenin’s shock coup of 1917”. These are references from a four-part critique of v. 1 on the World Socialist Web Site, a group I have little use for except for its film reviews and its commentary on Sovietology.

Kotkin was at the National History Center to discuss v. 2 of the biography titled “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941”. This is a period I am pretty familiar with, having written at some length about the famine in Ukraine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization, the joint occupation of Poland by Hitler and Stalin in 1940, the Spanish Civil War, etc. My views are largely influenced by what Leon Trotsky has written but not uncritically. In his debates with Max Shachtman and James Burnham in the late 30s prompted to a large extent by Stalin’s foreign policy during the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, Trotsky tended to bend the stick against Shachtman and Burnham who he considered to be reflecting anti-Communist prejudices. As it turns out, they would both eventually become Cold Warriors but in 1938 Trotsky was not clear enough about the rights of Poland and Finland vis-à-vis the USSR when he wrote:

Under the conditions of World War, to approach the question of the fate of small states from the standpoint of “national independence,” “neutrality,” etc., is to remain in the sphere of imperialist mythology.

I would not have put it this way myself, especially in light of the Katyn Massacre.

I suspect that Kotkin reprised some of the analysis in v. 1 of his biography since he begins his lecture by challenging Trotsky’s assessment of Stalin as an “outstanding mediocrity”. For Kotkin, Stalin was a Bolshevik with “surpassing organizational abilities; a mammoth appetite for work; a strategic mind and an unscrupulousness that recalled his master teacher, Lenin.” In keeping with Sovietologist norms, Kotkin views Stalin as Lenin’s heir. As there is a red stain of “unscrupulousness” that runs through Marx to Lenin to Stalin, we are advised to be staunch anti-Communists in order to preserve capitalism freedom in the USA even though it is destroying the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Since Lenin supposedly imposed a coup in October, 1917 in defiance of the majority of Russians, naturally that inspired Stalin to use dictatorial methods to retain power. While I do not have plans to read anything that Kotkin has written, I would be curious to see how he explains away Stalin’s opposition to taking power in October, 1917, seeing Kerensky’s Provisional Government as the legitimate expression of democracy in Russia, just like Kotkin.

To make the case for Lenin being Stalin’s ideological godfather, Kotkin has to account for Lenin’s Testament that stated:

Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.

Kotkin believes these sentences were forged since Lenin must have been too ill to have written them. Fellow Sovietologist Richard Pipes, who was much less impressed with Stalin than Kotkin, defended the authenticity of the Testament in a NY Review article on v. 1 of Kotkin’s bio that is fortunately not behind a paywall. He reminds his readers that Lenin’s disavowal of Stalin did not come out of the blue. He had grown increasingly alarmed over Stalin’s rudeness, especially when it came to his wife:

In January 1923 another incident occurred that further alienated Lenin from Stalin. Lenin congratulated Trotsky for having won a battle over foreign trade. Stalin promptly learned of this communication. He telephoned Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, rudely criticized her for “informing Lenin about party and state affairs” in violation of the rules he had established, and threatened her with an investigation. Having hung up the phone, Krupskaya became hysterical, sobbing and rolling on the floor. When he learned of this incident several months later, Lenin sent Stalin the following note:

Respected Comrade Stalin!

You had the rudeness to telephone my wife and abuse her. Although she had told you of her willingness to forget what you had said…I have no intention of forgetting so easily what is done against me, and, needless to say, I consider whatever is done to my wife to be directed also against myself. For this reason I request you to inform me whether you agree to retract what you have said and apologize, or prefer a breach of relations between us.

Most of Kotkin’s talk was taken up with a discussion of the USSR’s relations to Germany that were supposedly proof of Stalin’s foreign policy deftness. As part of Stalin’s “socialism in one country” doctrine, the October revolution was only possible because of WWI. Without the millions lost in the trenches, class peace would have prevailed. So, he developed the brilliant insight that only a new world war would recreate such conditions and make socialist revolution feasible once again. In practical terms, this meant driving an even bigger wedge between Germany and the WWI than pre-existing one that grew out of the punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles. This was a precondition for a new world war that would trigger socialist revolution. This is nearly as insane as the Argentine Trotskyist Posada advocating that the USSR launch a first strike nuclear attack on the U.S. so that socialism could emerge out of the radioactive rubble.

Missing from Kotkin’s dubious analysis is an engagement with the class basis of a Germany-USSR alliance. This is fresh in my mind since I have recently been reading about Paul Levi, a German Communist leader who opposed the Comintern’s reckless support for the seizure of power in Germany in 1921 in isolation from the Socialist Party that had majority support in the working class. Levi instead advocated an alliance between Germany and the USSR based on a revolutionary internationalist program. A workers government made up of a bloc between the SP and the CP in Germany would create what amounted to a leftist trade bloc that would exchange German machinery and expertise for Soviet oil and grain. This is what the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo was intended to carry out.

Any resemblance between the Treaty of Rapallo and the Ribbentrop-Molotov nonaggression pace is purely coincidental, even though Kotkin spends much of his talk trying to equate them. Nazi Germany was the outcome of the overthrow of the Socialist-led Weimar Republic. While the USSR had every right to negotiate non-aggression pacts with any state power on the planet, it only turned to Adolf Hitler when attempts to form a bloc with the democracies failed. This was made clear in 2008 when a trove of secret Kremlin documents were uncovered as the London Telegraph reported:

Papers which were kept secret for almost 70 years show that the Soviet Union proposed sending a powerful military force in an effort to entice Britain and France into an anti-Nazi alliance.

Such an agreement could have changed the course of 20th century history, preventing Hitler’s pact with Stalin which gave him free rein to go to war with Germany’s other neighbours.

The offer of a military force to help contain Hitler was made by a senior Soviet military delegation at a Kremlin meeting with senior British and French officers, two weeks before war broke out in 1939.

The new documents, copies of which have been seen by The Sunday Telegraph, show the vast numbers of infantry, artillery and airborne forces which Stalin’s generals said could be dispatched, if Polish objections to the Red Army crossing its territory could first be overcome.

But the British and French side – briefed by their governments to talk, but not authorised to commit to binding deals – did not respond to the Soviet offer, made on August 15, 1939. Instead, Stalin turned to Germany, signing the notorious non-aggression treaty with Hitler barely a week later.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the foreign secretaries of the two countries, came on August 23 – just a week before Nazi Germany attacked Poland, thereby sparking the outbreak of the war. But it would never have happened if Stalin’s offer of a western alliance had been accepted, according to retired Russian foreign intelligence service Major General Lev Sotskov, who sorted the 700 pages of declassified documents.

“This was the final chance to slay the wolf, even after [British Conservative prime minister Neville] Chamberlain and the French had given up Czechoslovakia to German aggression the previous year in the Munich Agreement,” said Gen Sotskov, 75.

I suppose that Kotkin might have characterized such documents as being forged, just like Lenin’s Testament, but I don’t have plans to read his book to find out.

For Kotkin, Stalin’s non-aggression pact was just one more example of his strategic adroitness. It showed that rather than being an “outstanding mediocrity”, he was as canny as Henry Kissinger or Klemens von Metternich except in the interests of communism rather than capitalist empire. Despite a fleeting reference to the Moscow trials that decapitated the Soviet military command, Kotkin denies that Stalin trusted Hitler to comply with the terms of the non-aggression pact. That’s quite a mouthful.

To prove that Stalin was ever-vigilant, Kotkin refers to an obscure battle that took place in the Soviet-controlled half of Poland in 1940 when Nazi troops encroached across the borderline. After Hitler refused to withdraw them, Stalin dispatched the Red Army to drive them back. So how could anybody capable of being so resolute be accused of being gullible?

Even if such a battle took place, it is hardly important enough to overcome the logical conclusion that Stalin did trust Hitler to abide by the treaty. What else would explain Stalin’s refusal to believe his own top spy’s insistence that Nazi Germany was about to launch Operation Barbarossa? Just six weeks before the invasion, Pavel Fitin, the head of N.K.V.D. foreign intelligence, informed Stalin that it was about to happen. Stalin’s reaction? He told Fitin that “You can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his fucking mother. This is not a source but a disinformationist.”

Stalin also ignored Richard Sorge, who was the USSR’s master spy. When he learned of Operation Barbarossa, Sorge reported to Moscow on May 3, 1941: “Berlin informed Ott that German attack will commence in the latter part of June. Ott 95 percent certain war will commence.” And then on June 20, 1941, Sorge reported once again: “Ott told me that war between Germany and the USSR is inevitable…. Invest [the code name for Ozaki] told me that the Japanese General Staff is already discussing what position to take in the event of war.” Wikipedia states that Moscow received the reports, but ultimately Joseph Stalin and other top leaders ignored Sorge’s warnings, as well as those of other sources.

An outstanding mediocrity? That would be far too generous. Stalin was a curse on socialism and it really says something when a distinguished Sovietologist can’t recognize that. Or perhaps, more accurately, he does recognize that and hopes to burnish a reputation of someone who was largely responsible for the collapse of socialism in the 20th century, an outcome in sync with Ivy League Russian Studies Department ideals.

May 7, 2018

Diana Johnstone’s attack on Tony McKenna

Filed under: Red-Brown alliance,Stalinism,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

Beware the dreaded Leon Bronstein

As you might expect, Diana Johnstone starts her Consortium News attack on Tony McKenna’s ISR article about Syria in a way that makes you think she has either not understood what she was reading because of declining intellectual powers or because, having understood it, mischievously misrepresented it.

She objects to Tony’s framing of the term “ideological lynchpin” in the following paragraph:

Much has been made of Western imperial support for the rebels in the early years of the revolution. This has, in fact, been an ideological lynchpin of first the Iranian and then the Russian military interventions as they took the side of the Assad government. Such interventions were framed in the spirit of anticolonial rhetoric in which Iran and Russia purported to come to the aid of a beleaguered state very much at the mercy of a rapacious Western imperialism that was seeking to carve the country up according to the appetites of the US government and the International Monetary Fund.

She tut-tuts Tony for failing to represent the “ideological” justifications of the Iranian and Russian regimes accurately that never said anything about imperialism. Their purpose was merely to defeat Islamic, Wahhabi extremism, not fend off the Rothschild Bank and other greedy Western financiers.

However, if you read Tony’s article as it was intended, it was obvious he was referring to people like John Wight, Mike Whitney and Stephen Gowans who have spent the last seven years trying to make Assad look like Syria’s Fidel Castro, fending off a Bay of Pigs type invasion. You see the words “rapacious Western imperialism” in the paragraph above? It is repeated later in the article and should have been enough to even tip off even the semi-conscious Ms. Johnstone who he was talking about: “Many, on the Communist left in particular, saw these invasions as being part of the last bastion of resistance to the imperial power projected by the United States and the heartlands of global capitalism, and so they failed to recognize that Stalin’s military takeovers represented a form of rapacious imperialism in its own right.” [emphasis added]

For Johnstone, the Saudi/Israeli/American proxy war was all about helping Israel destroy one of its main enemies in the Middle East. As a key player in the “Axis of Resistance”, keeping Assad in power was a sine qua non. She writes, “There are a few alternative hypotheses to Western motives – oil pipelines, imperialist atavism, desire to arouse Islamist extremism to weaken Russia (the Brzezinski gambit) – but none are as coherent as the organic alliance between Israel and the United States, and its NATO sidekicks.”

You sometimes have to wonder whether Johnstone and people like her read anything out of their comfort zone. To start with, the Baathists collaborated with the Zionists to smash Palestinian resistance during the Lebanese Civil War. Tal al-Zaatar, a refugee camp with over 50,000 Palestinian refugees, was besieged by Lebanese fascist militias backed by Hafez al-Assad over a two-month period. The Syrian military and its Phalangist allies machine-gunned refugee columns during civilian evacuation. Others were killed by grenades and knives, and numerous cases of rape followed the fall of the camp on August 12, 1976.

As the civil war in Lebanon dragged on, Syria finally decided to back a faction in the PLO in 1983 that would oust Yasir Arafat and replace him with someone more compliant to Baathist interests. Guess who backed Hafez al-Assad in this operation? None other than Muammar Gaddafi. In recounting Syria’s machinations, Michael Karadjis cites an Israeli official who was close to Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir:

Direct Syrian control of the PLO will be beneficial to us for a number of reasons. … our experience has shown that Syria can keep a firm hand on the Palestinian terrorists if it is in their interests to do so. Despite the fierce rhetoric from Damascus, there has been no attack against us from the Golan Heights for 10 years (Christopher Walker, ‘Israel welcomes prospect of Syrian-controlled PLO’, The Australian, November 11, 1983).

Obviously, the most “rejectionist” wing of the Palestinian movement would laugh at the notion that Syrian rebels were agents of the West acting on behalf of Israel. In February 2012, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya made clear where he stood. “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.” Even when Hamas came under intense pressure from Iran to support Assad, it stubbornly spoke out against the kind of criminality that people like Diana Johnstone defends. When Russian and Syrian jets were bombing hospitals, Hamas issued a statement that said: “We are following with great pain what is happening in Aleppo and the horrific massacres, murders and genocide its people are going through, and condemn it entirely.”

Johnstone’s article concludes with a broadside against Trotskyism in terms that should be familiar. It is identical to the arguments I have heard from Stephen Gowans and even Johnstone’s occasional writing partner, the physicist Jean Bricmont. Basically, it boils down to justifying strongmen like Stalin or the various nationalist politicians that the Kremlin supported during the Cold War, including the Assads, Gaddafi, et al. She writes:

Socialism or communism was above all a rallying cry meaning independence and “modernization” – which is indeed what the Bolshevik revolution turned out to be. If the Bolshevik revolution turned Stalinist, maybe it was in part because a strong repressive leader was the only way to save “the revolution” from its internal and external enemies. There is no evidence that, had he defeated Stalin, Trotsky would have been more tender-hearted.

Countries that are deeply divided ideologically and ethnically, such as Syria, are not likely to be “modernized” without a strong ruler.

Actually, this is the same analysis put forward by Kremlinologist Adam Ulam who analogized the USSR with the bourgeois revolutions that carried out primitive accumulation in order to incubate modern capitalist states. It fetishizes hydroelectric dams, subway systems, superhighways, military prowess, et al as the chief accomplishments of the USSR—barely understanding that this is the same criteria by which you can judge both Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt as well.

If you are familiar with Lenin’s writings, you’d understand that this was the last thing on his mind just before his death. Nine months he succumbed to a stroke, he wrote an article titled “On Cooperation” that projected the most humane, logical and socialist path forward for the USSR:

At present we have to realize that the cooperatives system is a social system we must now give more than ordinary assistance, and we must actually give that assistance. But it must be it assistance in the real sense of the word, i.e., it will not be enough to interpret it to mean assistance for any kind of cooperative trade; by assistance we must mean aid to cooperative trade in which really large masses of the population actually take part. It is certainly a correct form of assistance to give a bonus to peasants who take part in cooperative trade; but the whole point is to verify the nature of this participation, to verify the awareness behind it, and to verify its quality. Strictly speaking, when a cooperator goes to a village and opens a cooperative store, the people take no part in this whenever; but at the same time guided by their own interests they will hasten to try to take part in it.

Furthermore, he understood that the biggest threat to the development of socialism around this time was Stalin’s bureaucratic tendencies that culminated in the forced collectivization. Written just a couple of months before “On Cooperation”, Lenin called for the removal of Stalin as General Secretary in a letter to the CP Congress. Primarily, this was motivated by Stalin’s treatment of the Georgian Republic that was typical of Great Russian chauvinism even if Stalin was from Georgia himself. Lenin wrote:

I think it is unnecessary to explain this to Bolsheviks, to Communists, in greater detail. And I think that in the present instance, as far as the Georgian nation is concerned, we have a typical case in which a genuinely proletarian attitude makes profound caution, thoughtfulness and a readiness to compromise a matter of necessity for us. The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of “nationalist-socialism” (whereas he himself is a real and true “nationalist-socialist”, and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; “offended” nationals are not sensitive to anything so much as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest- to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades.

Like the Cold War liberals, Johnstone views Stalin as the natural outcome of the Russian Revolution. Despite Lenin’s insistence that peasant cooperatives be organized on a voluntary basis and the need to oppose national chauvinism, she champions the very behavior that would have gotten Stalin deposed in 1923.

Johnstone is mesmerized by modernizing industrialization and by the value of strong men carrying it out even though it has zero to do with the original vision of Karl Marx whose 200th birthday we celebrated 2 days ago. She certainly would have backed Stalin against the Georgians in 1923 just as she supports Putin against Ukraine today.

Like a lot of people who were radicalized in the 60s, Johnstone developed a reverence for Stalinist strong men as a way of overcompensating for LBJ, Nixon, et al. Totally alienated by American society, she became infatuated with men like Assad, Putin, Gaddafi and anybody else who was pilloried in the bourgeois press. Like the fraternity boys who kept posters of Ronald Reagan chopping wood on dorm room walls, her heart flutters for Vladimir Putin and anybody else who embodies her romantic idealization of men and women on horseback.

This would include Marine Le Pen, the ultraright Islamophobe that she described once as “basically on the left”. When people came out to protest Donald Trump’s viciously racist immigration crackdown, Johnstone described them with as much malice as Ann Coulter: “Whatever they think or feel, the largely youthful anti-Trump protesters in the streets create an image of hedonistic consumer society’s spoiled brats who throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want.”

Most people with their head screwed on right understand that Le Pen is a nativist just like all the other scum that are rising to the surface in Europe, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Nigel Farage in England. In 2017, Johnstone decided that the real issue in the French election was national sovereignty and who better to defend it than Marine Le Pen? After all, Johnstone states that “Le Pen insists that all French citizens deserve equal treatment regardless of their origins, race or religion.” Oh, how nice. This politician said that if she was elected, she’d stop all immigration to France.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Johnstone’s article appeared in The UNZ Review as well as Consortium News except there it had a most revealing subtitle: “Obsessed with Stalin, the disciples of Leon Bronstein see betrayed revolutions everywhere”. Leon Bronstein? What the fuck? Is Johnstone okay with that? Now, if it was me, I wouldn’t allow UNZ to publish anything I wrote, especially since Ron Unz, the guy who runs it, is a disgusting rightwing pig. In 2016, he wrote an article titled “American Pravda: The KKK and Mass Racial Killings” that posed the question why there was so much attention paid to lynchings when Communism was responsible for the death of millions. He also took exception to a string of racist cop killings by pointing out that the victims were “bad guys”. He describes Trayvon Martin as a “violent young thug” and Michael Brown as “a gigantic, thuggish criminal”.

There is something sad about these journalists who made their reputation in the 60s and 70s and who are now hell-bent on destroying it, even if unintentionally. There is something compulsive about the behavior as if such self-destructiveness stems from some deep psychological need to be connected to vicious criminals like Assad. In the 1930s, much of the left flocked to Stalin like a moth to a flame. Today we see much of the left lining up with Putin and Assad from the same sort of political abnormal psychology. Tony McKenna’s article was a useful corrective to the cesspool of lies these sorts of people bathe in. The fact that Johnstone took the trouble to attack it just confirms its value.

August 1, 2017

The Western Left and the Russian Revolution: a reply to Diana Johnstone

Filed under: human rights,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Yesterday an article by Diana Johnstone titled “The Western Left and the Russian Revolution” became available on the Monthly Review website. It was part of the magazine’s special issue on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. At one time I was great admirer of Johnstone for what I considered to be her keen insights into the Balkan wars but grew disaffected by her support for Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria. I grew even more disaffected when she published an article in CounterPunch that defended Marine Le Pen’s “sovereignism”—ie, French nationalism—on the basis of these lofty words: “Le Pen insists that all French citizens deserve equal treatment regardless of their origins, race or religion.” What would you expect someone running for president to say? That they don’t deserve equal treatment?

To give credit to CounterPunch, they had no problems publishing an article by Gregory Barrett last Friday that applauded articles denouncing Green Party figure Caitlan Johnstone for urging a left-right alliance but also questioned why the other Johnstone got a pass. “I despise nationalism as much as I despise neoliberalism. But if anyone at CP has ever attacked Diana Johnstone for her position on the French election, or piled on those writers on the Left who believe that nationalism is where the anti-neoliberal action is at the moment, then I must have missed it.”

In the 25 years or so that I have been reading the 83-year old author’s articles in places as varied as In These Times and the New Left Review, I can’t remember her ever addressing what I call “the Russian question”, one that I define as off-limits to Marxmail. Nothing gets flame wars going faster than “what happened in the USSR?”, not that a print publication like Monthly Review really has to worry about such matters.

Speaking only for myself, I would never dream of drawing up a balance sheet on the Western left and the USSR in 3500 words. It opens you up to all sorts of reductionism that fly off the page in her very first paragraph

Lenin predicted that revolution in Russia would trigger communist revolution in Germany, which would spread from there throughout the Western industrialized world. This was the Bolshevik leader’s major error of appreciation. In reality, the Bolshevik Revolution marked the start of a century of counterrevolution in the West.

Johnstone should have said that the Russian revolution failed to trigger a successful communist revolution in Germany. To really understand what happened in Germany, you need to read Pierre Broué’s 980-page “The German Revolution, 1917-1923” that can be read on Libcom. While I am not in Broué’s league by any stretch of the imagination, it took me more than twice the amount of words in Johnstone’s entire article to explain why the German revolution failed.

In the next paragraph, her confusion deepens. She said that the Bolsheviks erred in conceptualizing the proletarian revolution as one that ends up with one class (the workers) overthrowing the old ruling class (the bourgeoisie) after the fashion of the bourgeois revolution overthrowing the feudal aristocracy. In attempting to clarify this, she once again compresses decades of history into a sentence or two: “The classic model was the bourgeois revolution that overthrew the nobility. This comparison was wishful thinking, if only because the so-called bourgeoisie throughout civilized history had always been a partner in the ruling class.” I suppose that this is a reference to revisionist historians like François Furet who argue that the revolution was led by aristocrats rather than capitalists but if so, it probably deserved a few words of clarification.

In any case, this leads her to make her next point: “Despite the momentary success of the soviets (councils), power was never seized by the proletariat, but by intellectuals acting in its name, mobilizing the working class to achieve rapid industrialization.” Once again we see the reductionism at work. In fact, Marxism has always had leaders who could be described as “intellectuals”, starting with Karl Marx and going down the line to John Bellamy Foster. The German socialists developed the idea of a vanguard party that would be necessary since workers on their own have difficulty transcending trade union consciousness. This insight was embraced by V.I. Lenin who put it this way in “What is to be Done”:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.

Certainly Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff would have understood such elementary points.

After sections on the conservative and fascist efforts to overthrow the USSR, Johnstone turns naturally enough to Trotskyism—a tendency that she clearly reviles, just as does her writing partner Jean Bricmont. Most people would regard her efforts to sum up the Stalin-Trotsky debate in 189 words as sheer folly but let’s at least try to extract some sense out of her arguments that likely reflect her strong orientation to the “axis of resistance” today. She writes:

In retrospect, one may say that both Stalin and Trotsky were wrong as to what was possible, but Stalin was, in his brutal way, the more realistic of the two. Despite their relative ideological conservatism, the Stalinist parties of the Third International had more success abroad than their Trotskyist rivals, both in promoting national liberation struggles in the third world and in winning social benefits in the West.

What’s missing from her comparison is any appreciation of the role of state power. Pro-Moscow CP’s could have much more “success” because they were able to leverage their connection to the Kremlin in a way that small propaganda groups could never do. For example, when I was on a consulting trip to the ANC in Zambia in 1990, nearly everybody I spoke to had been to a university in Moscow, all expenses paid. The ANC and the SACP were organically linked and had the allegiance of millions. How could a small Trotskyist group in South Africa ever compete with such “facts on the ground”? By the same token, it was this bloc of parties that failed to carry the revolution forward—stuck as they were in the “popular front” strategies that amounted to elevating a section of the Black population into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie while the poor were left behind in a state of economic apartheid.

The only other point worth making is that both Stalinism and Trotskyism are spent forces. Trotskyism was mainly a negative critique of Stalinism and once it disappeared, Trotskyism failed to capitalize on its absence. It was born as a sect and died as a sect, always making the “correct” analysis but failing to sink roots into the mass movement. Something else is needed and to some extent Monthly Review has been helpful by spreading ecosocialist ideas. It is unfortunate that they would consider Diana Johnstone’s article to be relevant to the class struggle today.

In the section headed “The ‘Failed Revolution’ Narrative”, Johnstone continues to beat “Trotskyism” about the head and shoulders. She is outraged that “The Trotskyist stance, criticizing the revolution for not being revolutionary enough, provided a radical leftist basis for the human rights ideology that has become a quasi-religion in the West”. Such ultraleftism supposedly led a section of the French ’68 “revolutionaries” to make a  stink about the Vietnamese “boat people”, thus serving to facilitate their successful careers in the media and academia, where they spread their disillusionment toward the revolutions they had once celebrated.

This is obviously a reference to the New Philosophers such as Alain Glucksmann who was indeed a major figure in publicizing the plight of the “boat people”. However, he had nothing to do with Trotskyism. Instead, he started off as a Maoist as did Christian Jambet and Guy Lardreau. All this is detailed in an article titled “Isle of Light: A Look Back at the Boat People and the European Left” by Vo Van Ai, a Vietnamese poet who worked closely with such people. He writes:

In the cafe that evening in 1978, a Vietnamese friend of mine and I argued that the people on the Hai Hong were not economic refugees, but people seeking freedom from totalitarianism, and that this exodus was unprecedented. Throughout our four-thousand-year history, even in the worst times of famine or war, we Vietnamese had never left the land of our ancestors. But now the boat people were voting with their feet in order to survive.

Among our group were Claudie and Jacques Broyelle, sinologists and former Maoists who had just returned from China, deeply disillusioned with the evolution of the Chinese regime; Alain Geismar, former leader of the 1968 student “revolution” that rocked the de Gaulle government in France; and André Glucksmann, a writer and acclaimed “new philosopher.” These friends were all passionate idealists, all from far left-wing backgrounds, but all with no illusions about life under communist regimes. Their decision was rapid and unanimous. We had to do something to save the boat people.

Continuing along with her five minutes of hate against Trotskyism, she takes on those whose “hostility toward Stalinism reached fever pitch in reaction to mistreatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, after their revolutionary ideal had shifted to Israel.” These were people who wanted the USA to punish the USSR for restricting educated Jewish emigration to Israel and in the process transformed themselves into “neoconservatives”. I have no idea who she is talking about. The neoconservatives who became ardent supporters of the Reagan administration had abandoned their youthful radical ideas long before people like Natan Sharansky became a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. Irving Kristol, for example, had begun writing for the anti-Communist Commentary magazine in 1947—that’s decades before Russian-Jewish immigration to Israel became an issue.

Toward the end of Johnstone’s dreary article, she takes potshots at groups like Human Rights Watch, which do in fact tend to reflect State Department perspectives, especially in places like Venezuela and Cuba. Demonstrating her nostalgia for the good old days when the USSR provided housing, education and healthcare to the masses even if you could be sent to prison for ten years for complaining about the secret police, she blames human rights advocates for diverting the left from pursuing economic equality. She adds that any social revolution will violate the established “rights” of the dominant classes, and thus human rights is a permanently counterrevolutionary doctrine.

Call me an unreconstructed Trotskyist but I believe that the defense of human rights is essential for the left. I am particularly appalled by governments that bomb hospitals and wholeheartedly support a universal standard of human rights in which such acts must be regarded as a war crime.

One such group that is involved in providing urgently needed care to hospital patients in war-torn regions is Doctors without Borders that was founded in 1971 by French doctors who had served in Biafra. Among the founders was Bernard Kouchner, a former member of the Communist Party who would fit Johnstone’s profile as an imperialist stooge for his support for Kosovo in the war in Yugoslavia and even for Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein. So do we automatically characterize Doctors without Borders as the enemy?

Things get complicated.

On August 15, 2016, Saudi jets bombed a Yemeni hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that left 11 people dead and 19 injured. Among the people who were outraged by this attack was Assadist propagandist Ben Norton who wrote about such brutality in Salon (before he was fired for unspecified reasons):

Doctors Without Borders said six hospitals it supports in Yemen treated more than 400 wounded Yemenis after the attack. Four hospitals operated by Doctors Without Borders in Yemen have been bombed by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition.

Meanwhile, his writing partner Max Blumenthal virtually gives Assad the green light to bomb hospitals in rebel-controlled Idlib province.

Let me conclude with what I stated in the final paragraph of a CounterPunch survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, a director who would be vilified as an anti-Communist defender of human rights by Johnstone:

Unless the left begins to support a universal standard of human rights irrespective of geopolitical considerations, it will not be capable of providing the leadership for a new world order based on the abolition of class society and its replacement by one that respects each human being as having inviolable rights including the right to live securely and in dignity. Whatever Andrzej Wadja’s ideological flaws, his films are a cri de coeur for the rights of the Polish people. Viewed as untermenschen by the Nazis and the butt of racist “Polish jokes” in the 1960s, Wajda’s films are a necessary corrective as well as some of the greatest filmmaking of the past half-century.

July 26, 2017

The Forest Brothers and the holocaust

Filed under: Fascism,genocide,Stalinism,war — louisproyect @ 5:06 pm

For many on the left, the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—are the epitomes of Cold War villainy. Belonging to NATO, they are poised like daggers on the edge of Russia just as they were when it was the USSR. We are constantly being told that they were Adolf Hitler’s allies during WWII and that the CIA continued to back them during the Cold War as counter-revolutionary bastions. Like Ukraine and Poland, they have no redeeming qualities with some leftists probably considering the possibility that they are congenitally reactionary after the fashion of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”.

Needless to say, those on the left who are either unreconstructed Stalinists or are rapidly moving in that direction like Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton view their role as fighting the good fight against jihadists, Baltic fascists and anybody else who would deter Vladimir Putin from his mission of saving the world from Western imperialism. In a nutshell, they are to journalism what Oliver Stone’s interviews with Putin are to film.

Since there will obviously be a smaller market for their Pamela Geller-style articles denouncing the Wahhabi/Salafi/ISIS/al Qaeda threats to Enlightenment values now that Trump has backed Russian goals to the hilt and cut off all support to Syrian rebels, they will likely swerve in the direction of finding new enemies of the Kremlin to denounce.

Evidence of that is an Alternet Grayzone article by Norton titled In Flashy New Film, NATO Celebrates Nazi Collaborators Who Murdered Jews in the Holocaust that reads as if it were written for Sputnik or RT.com. It is aimed at an 8-minute documentary about the Forest Brothers produced by NATO.

The Forest Brothers were a guerrilla army made up of volunteers from all three Baltic states that fought against the Red Army and even alongside Nazi troops at times. The brunt of Norton’s article is to categorize them as murderers of Jews even though this charge is not based so much on what the guerrillas did but on supposedly the past history of “many” of its members. Citing Dovid Katz, an American professor based in Lithuania endorsed by Norton, you might wonder whether there was anything they could have done to be found innocent of these charges except to join forces with the Red Army:

Many of the members of the Forest Brothers “were fascists, including some recycled killers from the 1941 genocide phase of the Latvian Holocaust,” Katz explained. The group “served to delay the Soviet advance (in alliance with the United States, Great Britain and the Allies) that would liberate the death camps further west.”

Based on Norton’s time-tunnel, it is absolutely impossible to figure out why Baltic men and women would want to deter the Red Army since it destroyed Nazism, something that people like Oliver Stone remind us of every chance they get. Did Baltic youth read Mein Kampf in grade school? What made them so evil? Since for people like Stone and Norton, history begins at the point when the Forest Brothers took up their fight, you really have no idea what made them tick.

As I pointed out in my review of “The Fencer”, a Finnish film that reviews some of this history, Estonia was a piece of real estate ceded to Stalin as part of the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact as was Lithuania, Latvia and the eastern half of Poland. If you’ve learned from the history of Stalin’s rule—as Norton did before he prostituted himself—you’ll know that millions died in Ukraine and the USSR during the 1930s before a single Jew died in a Nazi concentration camp. Comparing Nazi Germany in the 1930s to Stalin’s Russia in the same period might have even led some people in the Baltic states to see Nazism as a lesser evil especially in light of Stalin’s brutal transformation of these nations into Soviet satellites in 1940. While not genocidal, it had the same character as his rape of the Ukraine. Indeed, in his “Why the Heavens did not Darken”, distinguished historian Arno Mayer described Nazi treatment of the Jews before the Wannsee conference as comparable to the treatment of Blacks in the Deep South.

As I pointed out in my review of “The Fencer”, Estonia lost 8,000 people in the year following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, victimized as “enemies of the people” in the Soviet occupation’s wide net. If this nation had the same population in 1940 as the USA today, that would have represented the loss of 2.4 million of its citizens.

What about Lithuania? On July 1, 1940 the country became a single-party state absorbed into the USSR. The 1,500 member Communist Party was the only one permitted to run in elections. Like Bashar al-Assad, they won a resounding victory. Prior to the election, 2,000 political activists were arrested. Another 12,000 individuals were imprisoned as “enemies of the people” soon afterwards. According to Wikipedia, “between June 14 and June 18, 1941, less than a week before the Nazi invasion, some 17,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia, where many perished due to inhumane living conditions”. Around this time, Lithuania had a population of 2.4 million. So once again using today’s population in the USA as a benchmark, this would have meant that the equivalent of 4.5 million people were victimized by Stalinist repression.

Not even Jews were spared. Eliyana Adler, an orthodox Jew who is Associate Professor in History and Jewish Studies at Penn State, wrote an article titled “Exile and Survival: Lithuanian Jewish Deportees in the Soviet Union” that began by describing Lithuania as having “established a unique and relatively tolerant relationship with what had been a fairly small Jewish community of about 150,000 people” in the intra-war period. Although Stalin was anti-Semitic, the main motivation for sending Lithuanian Jews to Siberia was their class origins. Adler writes:

On June 14, 1941, the Soviet security forces (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, hereafter NKVD) arrested about 30,000 Lithuanians, including 7,000 Jews, as ‘enemies of the people’. The action was well-planned. Two to three agents arrived at each home simultaneously, leaving no time for friends, neighbors, or relatives to contact and warn one another. Each family was given twenty minutes to pack their luggage and loaded into waiting trucks that brought them to the train station. They were then crammed into cattle cars, unable to say goodbyes, and with no knowledge of what awaited them.

What awaited them was what awaited most people who were exiled to Siberia and it took these Lithuanian Jews living in exile sixteen years to finally get the right to leave the USSR.

Latvia got the same treatment. Nearly 2 percent of the population was sent to Soviet gulags, including thousands of Jews.

Norton has the distinctly odd idea that none of this had any connection to anti-Communist armed struggles. He is so feckless as to make a stink about the Lithuanian organizers of collective farms being killed by anti-Soviet partisans. Is this guy for real? One imagines that at this point in his sorry career, he would endorse the forced collectivization of agriculture in both Ukraine and in Lithuania as the same way as Grover Furr or Roland Boer. In both cases, they were a total disaster. Farmers who resisted collectivization in Lithuania were deported to the USSR. Furthermore, as was the case in the USSR, agriculture suffered setbacks that it never fully recovered from.

Turning now to the question of Lithuania and the holocaust that is the main focus of Norton’s article, it is important to get the facts straight. The murders were carried out by a combined force of the Nazi Einsatzgruppe and Lithuanian auxiliaries who volunteered to be part of the killing machine. You can read Dina Porat’s account of all this in a chapter titled “The Holocaust in Lithuania: some unique aspects” that is included in David Cesarani’s “The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation” and can be read on Dovid Katz’s website.

The Lithuanian killers were organized as the Labour National Guard that was so extreme that even the Nazis sought to differentiate themselves from it. The Labour National Guard consisted of 8,400 men who also worked with the Lithuanian cops to systematically exterminate Jews in areas they policed. Porat cites a Nazi memorandum referring to how “the local population” was appalled by their bloodlust.

She speculates that a lot of the animus directed against the Jews had to do with widespread sympathies for the USSR:

One issue that lies outside the scope of this chapter concerns the explanations for the Lithuanians extreme conduct. In short, it was a combination of a complex of factors such as national traditions and values, religion (Orthodox Catholic, in this case), severe economic problems and tragically opposed political orientations. Lithuanian Jews supported the Soviet regime in Lithuania during 1940-1, being partly of socialist inclination, and in the full knowledge that life imprisonment [Soviet regime] is better than life sentence [Nazi rule], as in the Yiddish saying. By contrast, the Lithuanians fostered hopes of regaining, with German support, the national independence that the Soviets extinguished, as a reward for anti-Jewish and anti-Bolshevik stances. During the Soviet rule of Lithuania these feelings heightened and burst out following the German invasion. One might say that the Germans provided the framework and. the legitimation for the killing of Lithuania’s Jews„ while the national aspirations and the hatred for communism provided the fuel. Still, this is not a full explanation for such brutality, especially as there was no tradition of pogroms in Lithuania. Not all Lithuanians took part in the killings, and one cannot depict all of them as murderers. At least one thousand Lithuanians sheltered Jews, thereby risking their own and their lives. A few tens of thousands took active part in the mass murders while the rest were either apathetic or aggravated the misery of the Jews in lesser ways than actual killing. [emphasis added]

In my view, the blame for such inhumanity was WWII. You might as well ask what motivated well-meaning American citizens in uniform who under ordinary circumstances would not kill a fly to become enthusiastic participants in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Dresden, and other atrocities. Total war is an incubator of atrocities.

Finally, the origins of the Forest Brothers has to be addressed. They had no connection to the Labour National Guard although you can assume that some of its members joined the Forest Brothers at some point. It is, of course, impossible to pin down how many.

But the Forest Brothers in Lithuania emerged from a totally different dynamic. Its members were formerly part of the Territorial Defense Force who had disbanded with their weapons and uniforms and the Lithuanian Freedom Army, established in 1941. (Wikipedia). More importantly, the Forest Brothers did not take up arms against the Red Army until 1944, long after 95 percent of the Lithuanian Jews had been exterminated.

The Territorial Defense Force was hardly the sort of militia the Nazis considered trustworthy. In an article titled “Lithuanian Resistance To German Mobilization Attempts 1941-1944” written for a Lithuanian scholarly journal, Mečislovas Mackevičius describes the clash between Nazi goals and legitimate Lithuanian national aspirations [emphasis added]:

Since the brutality of the Germans was unpredictable, a special Lithuanian conference was convoked May 5, 1943 to ease the tensions. The Germans did not oppose the conference, especially since it was in favor of mobilizing against the eminent communist threat. The Red Army was gaining on the German Eastern front while the Eastern region of Lithuania was routinely harassed by communist partisans, supported and supplied from the Soviet Union. The Germans disagreed only with the conference’s references to Lithuanian independence. November 24, 1943, the first councilor (Pirmasis Tarėjas) convened a meeting of 45 select prominent Lithuanian figures. At the meeting, it was stated that a Lithuanian SS legion or any SS unit would be unacceptable in Lithuania as such groups are contrary to the Lithuanian spirit. Lithuanians can only accept and support a national armed force, the purpose of which would be Lithuanian national defense. The use of the term “Lithuanian Armed Forces” was completely unacceptable to the Germans. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that an SS legion would not be formed in Lithuania. Instead, simple armed Lithuanian forces would be established with the name Litauische Streitkrafte (Lithuanian Troops), acceptable to the Germans.

After long discussions and conferences, Gen. Povilas Plechavičius, Jackeln and SS Police Chief for Lithuania Maj. Gen. Harm signed a written agreement February 13,1944 for forming a local Lithuanian detachment (Lietuvos Vietinė Rinktinė).

The stipulations were as follows: Only Lithuanian officers would be in charge of the detachment, thereby preventing any German intervention. Such intervention was also specifically prohibited by the agreement. Lithuanian commands were to be formed all over the country, their work being limited to the territory of Lithuania proper. This ensured the detachment from assignment to foreign locations. Twenty battalions were planned with possible additions later. The soldiers would wear Lithuanian insignia on their uniforms. The detachment was to be formed only from volunteers. Additionally, the Germans agreed not to deport any more Lithuanians to forced labor as soon as the detachment was started.

February 16, 1944, Lithuanian Independence Day, Gen. Plechavičius, commander of the Lithuanian detachment, made a radio appeal to the nation for volunteers. It is noteworthy that all Lithuanian political underground organizations supported this solution. This was achieved through constant communication between Lithuanian commanders and resistance leaders. The February 16th appeal was enormously successful: More volunteers came forward than was expected. The Germans were very surprised and deeply shocked by the number of volunteers since their own appeals went unheeded, as described.

The Germans, worried by the success of the detachment, started to interfere, breaking the signed agreement. March 22, 1944, Jackein called for 70-80 thousand men for the German army as subsidiary assistants. Chief-of-Staff of the Northern Front Field Marshal Model pressed for 15 battalions of men to protect the German military airports. Plechavičius rejected the demand April 5, 1944. Renteln himself demanded workers for Germany proper. Other German officials also voiced their demands.

Finally, April 6, 1944, the Germans ordered Plechavičius to mobilize the country. Plechavičius responded that the mobilization could not take place until the formation of the detachment was complete. This greatly displeased the Germans since it was clear the detachment did not serve their immediate needs and interests.

The Germans decided to end the resistance of the Lithuanians and the formation of the detachment. Provocation seemed to be the best method to escalate the situation. Jackein demanded the detachment troops to take an oath to Hitler, the text of which was provided. Plechavičius rejected the demand. May 9, 1944, Jackein ordered the detachment units in Vilnius to revert to his direct authority. All other units of the detachment were to come under the command of the regional German commissars. Furthermore, the detachment was to don SS uniforms and use the “Heil Hitler” greeting.

The Lithuanian headquarters directed the detachment units in the field to obey only the orders of the Lithuanian detachment. It also ordered the Detachment Officer School in the city of Marijampolė to send the cadets home. May 15, Plechavičius, the commander of the detachment, and Col. Oskaras Urbonas, chief-of-staff of the detachment, were arrested together with the other staff members. They were deported to the Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia. Subsequently, 40 more officers of the detachment were arrested and deported.

The Germans acted ferociously in liquidating the detachment. For example, they publicly executed 12 randomly selected soldiers in a Vilnius line-up which consisted of some 800 men. En route to the city of Kaunas, while transporting some arrested members, one of the prisoners escaped. In retaliation, the Germans then selected non-commissioned officer Ruseckas for execution on the spot. Since the German regular army guards were stalling the execution, a German SS commissioned officer did the actual shooting.

The cities of Vilnius, Panevėžys, Marijampolė, and others were deeply affected by the dismantlement of the Lithuanian detachment. Any resistance resulted only in suffering and greater sacrifice: 3,500 were arrested. A part of those resisting were sent to forced labor camps in Germany. Some of the armed soldiers inevitably reached the forests and undoubtedly joined the newly formed armed Lithuanian underground to fight the second Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

These were kind of men who joined the Forest Brothers, not the cops and thugs who took part in the mass murder of Jews. In its attempt to turn the criminal into the victim and the victim into the criminal, the Russian state press is sweeping this history under the rug. Why someone who was educated in Marxist politics like Ben Norton would pick up a broom on their behalf is a mystery. That is, unless the pay is really, really good.

July 19, 2017

The Fencer

Filed under: Film,sports,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, “The Fencer” is an Estonian-language film made in 2015 by Finns that tells the story of a fencing instructor named Endel Nelis who led an underdog team of children to victory in a competition held in Leningrad in the early 50s. In doing so, he took considerable risks since he had been drafted into the Estonian contingent of the Nazi army after Hitler invaded Estonia. Torn between self-preservation and dedication to his students, he chooses them. There was a real person named Endel Nelis who died in 1993 but the film’s plot takes liberties with his story. There is no evidence that he was wanted by the KGB even though Estonians paid dearly for being dragooned into Hitler’s killing machine. While the film has a fictional narrative, there is a larger truth about the USSR and Estonia that I will address after saying a few words about this altogether stirring film.

As a genre, “The Fencer” has a lot in common with both documentary and narrative films I have seen about kids from poverty-stricken circumstances winning chess tournaments, especially “Dark Horse” that came out the same year as “The Fencer”. “Dark Horse”, a New Zealand film, was about a troubled Maori man named Genesis Potini who trained Maori children to compete and win in chess tournaments against children from elite schools. “The Fencer” will also remind you of “The Karate Kid” since fencing and karate are both one-on-one combat sports.

However, the focus is mostly on Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) who has arrived in the poor and rural village of Haapsalu, Estonia from Leningrad in order to avoid detection by the Soviet police. He interviews with the principal of the local school for a sports instructor position that he hardly looks forward to. The gym lacks equipment and the children are not very athletic. In an early scene, 1 out of 5 boys run around vaulting equipment rather than leap over it. When Nelis decides to take them out skiing, the principal informs him that the skis are currently being used at a military base for training.

Missing the fencing competition he excelled at in Leningrad, he begins working out with a fencing foil on his own in the school’s gym in his spare time only to be discovered by a pre-teen girl named Marta who becomes totally fixated on his balletic moves.

Can you teach me to do that, she asks. Finally discovering something that might motivate his students, Nelis begins a fencing class that starts out on the most elementary basis. The children are lined up like they were recruits in basic training and put through the abc’s of fencing—except without a weapon. Once he realizes that they are determined to become fencers, he takes them into a nearby forest where they cut down branches that are the length of a fencing foil and equips them with an ersatz handle.

The film includes a romance between Nelis and the school librarian who stands behind his work, even though that puts her at odds with the principal who regards fencing as “feudal”. In a PTA type meeting, he urges the parents to support his decision to drop the program using Stalinist rhetoric about the “needs of the proletariat”. The grandfather of Nelis’s star student stands up to remind him that Karl Marx was a fencer when young.

“The Fencer” is an old-fashioned film with a script that borders on the melodramatic. What makes it compelling is the performances by the leading characters and enough of the actual art of fencing to carry you along. In plucky underdog films such as this, you can surely expect a happy ending.

As someone who had just finished a survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, I found myself wondering about the historical backdrop for the film. As I had mentioned in my review of “Katyn”, how was it possible for the USSR to organize the execution of 22,000 Polish officers for the crime of being officers? By the same token, what kind of justice is it to put men in concentration camps who had been forced to fight on the side of the Nazis? In a key scene between Nelis and his librarian lover, he tells her that he managed to flee from the army not long after being drafted without being caught. The other men in the unit, who were friends and neighbors from Estonia, were not so lucky. They were apprehended and killed.

According to Wikipedia, the majority of Estonian men volunteered to join the Nazi military and comprised a 70,000 strong force. An Estonian Legion was led by Franz Augsberger, a high-ranking German SS commander. In a key battle between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Battle of Narwa in January, 1944, Estonian soldiers were key to holding off the Red Army. Soviet scorched earth tactics helped to keep Estonia in the Nazi camp. Two months later, Soviet bombers attacked the capital city of Tallinn and left 40 percent of the homes burned to the ground.

If your knowledge of Estonia is based on these bare facts, you would tend to regard its citizens as a reactionary mob despite what is depicted in “The Fencer”. Indeed, whenever I heard about Estonia in the 1960s, it was always written off as hotbed of fascism in the same way as Ukraine, another Nazi ally supposedly. But like Ukraine, Estonia was not reflexively predisposed to anti-Communism. In some ways, writing Estonians off as “bad seeds” reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s argument that Germans were innately anti-Semitic.

Like Poland, Estonia was ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After forcing the Estonian government to accept Soviet military bases and 25,000 soldiers on its soil, the country quickly came under total Soviet control when an additional 90,000 Soviet soldiers were sent in as reinforcements. A puppet government was installed and a Red flag replaced the Estonian flag over the nation’s capital. Shortly afterwards, tribunals were set up to try “enemies of the people” against a backdrop of demonstration elections that recorded a 92.8% preference for the Communist Party, the only one on the ballot of course. Economically, the country was transformed overnight. Everything, including small shops, was nationalized and trade with the West came to an end.

During the first year of Soviet occupation over 8,000 people, including most of the country’s leading politicians and military officers, were arrested and 2,200 of those arrested were executed on the spot in Estonia. The rest were sent to prison camps in the USSR, from which very few returned. 8,000 doesn’t sound like very much but in 1939 Estonia had a population of 1,122,000, just a bit larger than San Jose, California. Can you imagine the trauma suffered by such a city if 8,000 of its residents were killed for no other reasons than being “enemies of the people”? Or think of it this way, if Estonia had a population as large as that of the USA’s today, the proportionate number of victims would have been 2,400,000.

Considering the fact that the Nazis had never killed a single Estonian until it invaded the country on its way to the USSR, it is understandable why many young men who were politically naïve might have seen them as the lesser evil.

Last Thursday, RT.com published an article titled “‘Perversion of history’: Russian officials blast NATO film glorifying Nazi collaborators” that attacked an 8-minute film produced by NATO about the Forest Brothers, a Baltic-wide guerrilla movement that fought alongside the Nazis against the Red Army. Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova wrote: “Don’t remain indifferent, this is a perversion of history that NATO knowingly spreads in order to undermine the outcome of the Nuremberg Tribunal and it must be cut short!” She also correctly stated that many of the Forest Brothers were former Nazi collaborators and members of the Baltic Waffen SS.

The problem with much of RT.com reporting is that it operates in a time-tunnel that begins with, for example, Nazi alliances with Estonian nationalists but not with the secret protocols that gave the USSR free rein to seize control of Estonia and murder tens of thousands of its citizens only because it saw that as necessary for securing a buffer against the West, which at that time did not include Adolf Hitler.

As difficult as it is for some people on the left to understand, the best defense of the USSR was working-class solidarity across borders, not the Metternichian foreign policy of Stalin in the past and of Putin’s Russia today. After WWII, Stalin retained control of the Baltic States with the full approval of the USA but as the Cold War began, they began to be courted by the CIA as possible allies. Instead of maintaining its domination of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Kremlin should have granted them the right to self-determination and offered them total political and economic support as independent states. That, in fact, was the original policy of the Soviet Union even though it is virtually unknown to people who rely on RT.com.

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

–V.I. Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”

 

 

July 14, 2017

Saudi Arabia’s snitch pissed off at Jacobin

Filed under: humor,Saudi Arabia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

If I was Norton, I wouldn’t take this lying down. I’d get together with Molly Klein, Jacob Levich and John Steppling to organize a foursome workshop on “Jacobin delenda est” at the next Left Forum.

July 6, 2017

“Trotskyists” put down red carpet for obscure Stalinist blogger

Filed under: Stalinism,Syria — louisproyect @ 11:53 pm

Jeff Mackler

On Friday, July 14th at the Solidarity Center in NYC, Stephen Gowans will be speaking on “Washington’s Long War in Syria“, his new pro-Assad book. Solidarity Center is the HQ of the International Action Center, the antiwar front of the Workers World Party, a group that emerged out of the Trotskyist movement after the founder decided to back the Soviet tanks rather than the Hungarian workers in 1956. They are essentially Stalinists–much more so than the Communist Party.

Among the sponsors of the meeting is something called UNAC, the United Antiwar Coalition, that has a steering committee that is a mixture of WWP’er Sarah Flounders and independent Stalinists like Phil Wilayto.

But the largest party representation is from Socialist Action, a tiny sect led by Jeff Mackler. After splitting from the SWP, Mackler and other party veterans formed SA in the early 80s to rebuild a purified Trotskyist group. It has failed abjectly but like the group it split from, it soldiers on in the foolish notion that it is to the USA that Lenin’s party was to Russia. Mackler is on the steering committee as is Marilyn Levin and Christine Gavreau, who like Mackler are in their seventies. I can’t say for sure if they are still in SA but I strongly suspect that they are. This is definitely not a formation that is going to compete with the DSA for fresh young blood.

Gowans is a piece of work. With a straight face, he writes things like this:

The US Library of Congress country study on Syria refers to “the  socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that  “the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy.

https://www.liberationnews.org/syrias-uprising-in-context-html/

Meanwhile, Bassam Haddad, no friend of the Syrian rebels, wrote this:

By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.

http://www.merip.org/mer/mer262/syrian-regimes-business-backbone

None of this ever entered the ideological cocoon of the Marcyite wing of the American left that now includes Socialist Action. Indeed, nothing that took place within Syria held even the slightest interest for them. These are people who get their ideas from ZeroHedge, Moon of Alabama, Global Research, Information Clearing House and other bottom-feeding click-bait outlets of the lunatic left.

Sad, really.

May 31, 2017

Socialism in one country revivalism

Filed under: socialism,Stalinism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

From the blog of Roland Boer, who was awarded the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2014, a decision that made about as much sense as naming Jeff Sessions Attorney General

The subtitle of a Jacobin article by New Left Review editorial board member Daniel Finn probably speaks for many on the left: “The Bolivarian Revolution went too far for capitalism but not far enough for socialism.” Like doctors examining a critically ill patient, the latest issue of the Jacobin features a panel of experts offering various cures. Favoring radical surgery is Eva Maria, a Venezuelan member of the ISO who answers the question “how socialist was Venezuela’s ‘twenty-first century socialism’” thusly:

Chávez’s thinking was that he could take over a capitalist state through an electoral process. Then, he could help foster the social revolution by using the position he held in the state. But I think that presupposes a lot of things that are unstable and untrue.

Mike Gonzalez, a former member of the British SWP that spawned the ISO, has an article in the same issue that accuses the Pink Tide governments of having “left stranded and disoriented those millions who fought for a different world”.

The methodology of Finn, Maria and Gonzalez is the one followed by film critics. You go to a press screening and take notes on all the terrible things that Michael Bay did in his latest movie. There is little doubt that Bay’s movies are crap but are the criticisms going to help young screenwriters and directors make better films? As a film critic and someone who was deeply involved in the Sandinista revolution–another that received thumbs down from the pure at heart–this sort of sideline criticism strikes me as utterly sterile.

But on a deeper level, it poses the question whether the ideological assumptions at the heart of these critics effaces one of the major theoretical challenges the left has faced since 1917—namely, can socialism be built in one country. This is exactly the meaning of the criticisms–that all of these countries should have “gone socialist”. One imagines that they came to this conclusion since Saint Lenin said it was possible in the Soviet Union but the fallen saint Leon Trotsky refused to describe the USSR in those terms even after 19 years of “socialist development”. In chapter nine of “Revolution Betrayed”, he describes the character of the USSR as not yet decided by history:

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.

This was the only conceivable way to describe a country that despite the total absence of private property was indistinguishable politically and socially from fascism. For those who have been trained in Tony Cliff’s ideology, characterizing the USSR was much easier. It was “state capitalism”, a term that had little purchase outside of the ranks of the international movement he built except for individuals like CLR James who while believing in it never devoted much ink to defending it. The Cliffites never really answered the question adequately, however. If it was impossible to build socialism in one country in Russia, how in the world could Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua “go socialist”? The Sandinistas ruled over a country that had a population about the size of Brooklyn, one elevator in the entire country, and whose GDP was less than what Americans spent on blue jeans. Socialism? If the USSR with its vast resources, immense population and powerful army was not capable of building socialism, how could any of these fragile Latin and Central American nations satisfy the demanding critics?

Up until Lenin took that train ride back to Russia in 1917, he never considered Russia to be capable of building socialism. He was for a revolution against feudalism that could motivate workers in the West to overthrow capitalism. In other words, he was for a world revolution. In 1920, Lenin gave a speech on the 3rd anniversary of the revolution that categorically denied the possibility of building socialism without the USSR being linked to more advanced and liberated nations to the West:

Three years ago, when we were at Smolny, the Petrograd workers’ uprising showed us that it was more unanimous than we could have expected, but had we been told that night that, three years later, we would have what now exists, that we would have this victory of ours, nobody, not even the most incurable optimist, would have believed it. We knew at that time that our victory would be a lasting one only when our cause had triumphed the world over, and so when we began working for our cause we counted exclusively on the world revolution.

Just three years later, he adopted the same cautious tone in an article titled “On Cooperation” that defined socialism in the USSR as a network of peasant cooperatives similar to those that the Chavistas promoted. The big difference between the USSR and Venezuela is that the Bolsheviks “expropriated the expropriators”, a bold act that prompted a counter-revolutionary invasion that cost up to 12 million lives, most of them civilian, and $35 billion. If Chavez had followed “20th century socialism”, he would have expropriated the expropriators as well. That would have eliminated the internal threat but accelerated the external one. The USA would have wasted no time imposing crippling sanctions to make the country “cry uncle”. None of this ever enters the calculations of someone like Mike Gonzalez. It might have been thrilling to him to witness such a transformation in Venezuela even if it lasted briefly and left our movement feeling just as crushed as when Pinochet took power in 1973. We need a permanent revolution, not in the Trotskyist sense but in the sense of permanence. Capitalism achieved that kind of permanence beginning in the 15th century because it pitted a bourgeoisie that was accumulating social and economic power within the framework of medieval political institutions.

Nikolai Bukharin was very clear about the differences between the bourgeois revolution and proletarian revolutions. Marxists traditionally had believed that just as capitalism emerged out of the old feudal order, so would socialism emerge out of bourgeois society. However, as Bukharin pointed out, the bourgeoisie was not an exploited class and therefore was able to rule society long before its political revolution was effected. The workers are in a completely different position, however. They lack an independent economic base and suffer economic and cultural exploitation. Prior to its revolution, the working-class remains backward and therefore, unlike the bourgeoisie, is unable to prepare itself in advance for ruling all of society. It was only through the seizure of power and rule through a vanguard party that the workers could build socialism.

What did Karl Marx think about a revolution in Russia? Toward the end of his life, he became increasingly convinced that the country was ripe for revolution. So persuaded was he of this eventuality that he began to study Russian to keep up with the developments in the country. Just two years before his death, he began corresponding with Vera Zasulich, a one-time Narodnik who had become a Marxist. However, she had qualms about whether Russia had to go through a capitalist phase before socialism was possible, a view held by Georgi Plekhanov who was regarded as the most advanced Marxist thinker in the country.

Marx said it was not necessary and even anticipated what Lenin would state in 1923 about socialism resting on communal peasant farming: “My answer is that, thanks to the unique combination of circumstances in Russia, the rural commune, which is still established on a national scale, may gradually shake off its primitive characteristics and directly develop as an element of collective production on a national scale.”

A year after Marx wrote this letter to Zasulich, he and Engels co-wrote a preface to a new edition to Capital that fleshed out the relationship between Russia and advanced nations in the West:

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina [commune], though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

In other words, in 1920 Lenin was simply repeating what Marx and Engels had written in 1882. If the Russian Revolution detonated revolutions in Germany, England, France et al, then a “communist development” would be possible. Marx never wrote much about what a socialist revolution would look like until 1871, when the Paris Commune became the first state ever governed by the workers themselves. Marx’s focus in his book on the Commune was not on “socialism” as much as it was about the proletariat in power. Clearly, the failure of the Commune to be replicated anywhere else in France, let alone the rest of Europe, sealed its fate. Its importance was an example of working people acting in their own interests without a ruling class. As such, it had to be destroyed. Marx ends “Civil War in France” with a judgement on its historical significance: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”

The key word is harbinger.

Yesterday, a graduate student in Tampa, Florida named Donald Parkinson replied to someone who identified Nikolai Bukharin as the inventor of the theory of socialism in one country even though it is usually attributed to Josef Stalin. Parkinson said that there were those who came before him including Karl Kautsky, something that was news to me.

I had never associated Kautsky with the theory but a brief search turned up an article titled ‘Socialism in one country’ before Stalin: German origins that is worth reading. It was written by Erik Van Ree for the June 2010 Journal of Political Ideologies that includes a sharp analysis of Kautsky, who ironically attacked Lenin for trying to build socialism in a country that was not economically advanced enough. Van Ree writes:

After Engels’s death in 1895, the editor of Die Neue Zeit, Kautsky, was widely seen as the main theoretical spokesman of ‘orthodox Marxism’. In contrast to the revisionists, he rejected German colonial and imperial ambitions. In his view, the most effective way of strengthening the country would be to expedite the transition to socialism. In a remarkable March 1897 editorial of Die Neue Zeit discussing admiral Friedrich von Hollmann’s naval programme, it was concluded that Germany was too late to become a winner in the imperialist rivalry:

If Germany wants to get ahead of richer nations, only one road is available to her, the road of a ‘social revolution, which … makes possible the creation of new productive forces that cancel out the disadvantages of the geographical situation’. Marx expressed this thought already fifty years ago … and later Lassalle gave it the formulation that the world market will belong to that nation whose working class first manages to emancipate itself. … The Weltpolitik of the big industrialists must be confronted with the proletarian Weltpolitik.

This editorial suggested not only that Germany could establish socialism on her own, but that this would even represent the desirable state of affairs; for the spread of socialism to other nations would have undone the lead socialism would have given Germany, which was the whole point of the editorial. That was however not likely the real drift of Kautsky’s thinking. More likely, he only intended to show that the socialist economic system was a solution for countries that were insufficiently able to get ahead. Nonetheless, the editorial shows that even the ‘orthodox’ Kautsky was not insensitive to the patriotic attractions of socialism in one country.

Kautsky was influenced by the spirit of the times. From the 1870s onward capitalist states had been retreating from free trade to nationalization of their economies and protectionism. Correspondingly, in the work of German social-democrats, including even of free-trade advocate Kautsky, the concept of autarky became steadily more important. In his 1892 Das Erfurter Program, Kautsky defined the socialist state as a ‘self-sufficient association [Genossenschaft]’ that must produce ‘everything it needs for its existence’, something he said all socialists agreed on. He explained that the expansion of international trade had more to do with capitalism than with real needs, and that under socialism international trade ‘will be strongly reduced’.32 To be sure, Kautsky was probably not referring to an isolated socialist state but to an international community of socialist states, each of which would be organizing its own autarkic economy.33 Nonetheless, this was a programme of socialist autarky. The book was probably the single most authoritative compendium of the SPD’s ideology for the next 25 years, so the weight of these passages should not be underestimated.

Unlike Lars Lih who has devoted so many words to rehabilitating Kautsky’s reputation, this passage reminds me why I have always seen him a bit more critically. I would go so far as to advise all my readers to see all of the classic Marxist thinkers with “warts and all”, including a patzer like me.

 

March 30, 2017

Another Stasi film? No thanks

Filed under: Cold War,Germany,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 12:32 am

Goodbye, Lenin is available on Amazon.com

When it comes to films, there are two subject matters that have zero interest for me. One is the Holocaust and the other is the Stasi—the East German secret police. Both lend themselves to predictability both in plot and message. We know that the Jews will be killed and families scattered. We also can be sure that the Stasi will come off as fiendish enemies of freedom and human rights. So, when it comes to stick figures, nothing works better than making films about fending off Nazi Commandants or Stalinist secret police—both with lines like “Ve haf ways of making you talk.”

This afternoon I was listening to an NPR interview on the Leonard Lopate show with the husband-and-wife team that made the documentary “Karl Marx City” that is described in the heading of A.O. Scott’s NY Times review as revisiting the “Everyday Terror of Dictatorship”. The wife is the daughter of a man who after being accused of being a Stasi agent after the fall of the Wall killed himself.

Just for the heck of it I Googled “Stasi” and “film” and discovered that this is a well-trodden theme going back to 2006’s “The Lives of Others”. It is all about people living in fear of informants in a society with an abnormally high suicide rate. Although I never saw the film, it sounded like a fictional version of “Karl Marx City”.

2012 was a banner year for East German Stasi films with “The Tower” and “Barbara” getting rave reviews. Stephen Holden’s review of “The Tower” mentions that an overweight East German soldier is forced to eat feces in boot camp as a punishment. Thank goodness, East Germany is now liberated but who will now liberate the USA where a Marine drill sergeant forced a Muslim enlistee into a laundry dryer, where he suffered second degree burns?

In a NY Times profile of Christian Petzold, the director of “Barbara”, he states that he did not want Stasi operatives to be “depicted as mustache-twirling villains”. The eponymous lead character is a doctor who has been banished to the countryside for some unspecified offense, where she is snooped on by Stasi operatives. We learn from a review of the film that Petzold was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, evidence of which is “the prickles of unease that creep into his work, creating a cold climate of paranoia and an oft-justified fear of an imminent threat.” I haven’t seen this film but when it comes to prickles of unease, you can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”, where mustache-twirling villains abound.

In the Lopate interview, the subject of “Ostalgie” came up. Since East Germany has become pretty well integrated into the smoothly running German capitalist machine, there’s not much concern about “Ostalgie”, which is a neologism based on East (Ost) and Nostalgia. The couple briefly referred to its feeling among some East Germans that there were some good things about Communism, like workers not having to worry about unemployment.

I wonder if that meant much to NPR listeners, who strike me as a mixture of Upper West Side psychotherapists, liberal college students and cabinet makers. Funny how that can matter to people—the right to a job. I was only on unemployment once in my life, back in 1990 before going to work for Columbia and it was really hell on wheels. I say that as someone without a family and debts at the time. What is it like for a coal miner in West Virginia who hadn’t worked in five years, had no health insurance before Obamacare and was suffering from some debilitating illness? Would he trade his situation for that of a coal miner in East Germany who was guaranteed a job for life even if the Stasi was snooping on him?

The Wikipedia article on “The Lives of Others” mentions a film that made quite an impression on me when it first came out in 2003. It describes “Goodbye, Lenin” as a comedy, which doesn’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that is a film that honors “Ostalgie” and puts East German Communists in a light that struck me as sensitive to why many Germans became Communists, even if the project involved compromises with the revolutionary impulses that made them to join the party.

Good Bye, Lenin

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 14, 2004

It is 1989 and Communism is crumbling everywhere except in the heart and mind of Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), a middle-aged Berlin resident who has a picture of Che Guevara on her bedroom wall and is fiercely loyal to party leader Erich Honecker.

Her son Alex (Daniel Brühl, who played the schizophrenic youth in the powerful “White Sound”) and daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) are typical young Berliners. They have little use for ideology and yearn for the material goods and personal liberty of the West. Despite their differences with their mother, they love her deeply and would do anything to make her happy.

One night as Christiane is heading toward a party celebration, she happens upon a police crackdown on anti-Communist protestors, including her son who is being thrown into the back of a truck in handcuffs. This sight causes her to collapse on the street with a heart attack. She is brought to a hospital in a coma.

When Alex visits the hospital, the doctor tells him that there is no guarantee that she will ever awake from the coma. If she does, the important thing is to prevent any shocks to her psyche since another heart attack would prove fatal. For the next eight months, as Christiane lays motionless in her hospital bed, everything changes around her. The Berlin Wall collapses, the two Germanys are reunited and the East is flooded by Western companies.

Finally Christiane regains consciousness but in a weakened state. In a ploy that constitutes the dramatic tension of the film and its underlying political and social theme, Alex resolves to create an artificial environment in her bedroom back at home that is faithful to the Communist past. After elaborately preparing the bedroom with the clunky furniture and Stalinoid photos they had discarded, they spirit her from the hospital making sure that the ambulance attendants stay mum about the political sea change.

Alex, who has befriended a co-worker and aspiring video artist at a Western satellite-dish company (his former employer has gone bankrupt, like almost all “Ostie” firms), relies on him to assemble archival news programs from the Communist past that they play for Christiane on a concealed VCR. The joke is that it really doesn’t matter, since the “news” consists mainly of reports about dissatisfaction in the West with unemployment, drug addiction and other social problems.

This joke is part of an ensemble of comic situations as Alex goes to greater and greater lengths to sustain the illusion that Communism is still in power. He searches desperately for consumer goods from the past that apparently not only appeal to his mother, but to other elderly East Berliners who feel swamped by Western products that are alien to their culture. Although the word “globalization” is not mentioned once in the film, an astute member of the audience might think of the French farmer José Bové who vandalized a Macdonalds for its encroachments on native cuisine and values.

As Alex ventures out into the brave new world of capitalism, he begins to question the changes. For example, when he brings his mother’s East Germany currency to a bank to be converted into Deutschemarks, he is told that the deadline was two days earlier and that they are worthless. When he raises his voice in protest, bank guards throw him out. He calls them assholes.

In the final scene of the film, as his mother is approaching death, he stages one last ruse that summarizes the sensibility of Wolfgang Becker, the film’s director and co-author (written with Bernd Lichtenberg). After she has discovered traces of the West during an unsupervised stroll in her neighborhood (Coca-Cola signs, BMW’s, etc.), they convince her that immigrants from West Germany have recently begin flooding into the East, seeking refuge from unemployment and crime. The film’s coda consists of a televised speech by East Germany’s “new” head of state, a renowned former cosmonaut (a cab-driver recruited by Alex), who addresses the profound changes in Germany as it is reunited under socialism.

However, the speech does not consist of Stalinist jargon. Instead it is a heartfelt plea for an egalitarian society that is based on human need rather than private profit. Obviously written by Alex, it is a sign of his final reconciliation with his mother on both familial and philosophical grounds.

On January 13, 2004, the New York Times reported on the phenomenon of “Ostalgie”, a neologism that indicates nostalgia for the “East” or the Communist past, which is epitomized in a small museum in the town of Eisenhüttenstadt near the Polish border and that has gotten a boost from the popularity of “Good Bye, Lenin”. It evokes Christiane’s bedroom:

“The museum is just a few rooms, mostly on the second floor of a former day-care center, but it holds 70,000 to 80,000 objects from the former East Germany. About 10,000 people a year come to look at Mikki transistor radios, jars of Bulgarian plums, schoolbooks, plastic water glasses that never seemed to come in the right colors. Seeing these familiar objects clearly stirs warm feelings about the vanished and unrecapturable past.”

This is not just about nostalgia for chintzy objects that might be regarded as a German version of “camp”. It is also about a growing disenchantment with the new capitalist world that they had assumed would be a kind of utopia:

“Ostalgie is complicated, made up of various ingredients. One is clearly the disillusionment felt by many former Easterners over German reunification, which took place 13 years ago. Unemployment these days is commonly 25 percent in regions like Eisenhüttenstadt. Rents are no longer subsidized. Doctor visits cost money. People can be fired. In addition, as Andreas Ludwig, the West German scholar of urban history who started the museum a few years ago, noted, even capitalist products break down or are shabby and schlocky.”

It would be too much to expect the New York Times to acknowledge what is truly driving “Ostalgie”. It is the memory of Easterners that the old system guaranteed cheap rents, a job, medical care and low crime. With “globalization” turning most of the planet into an ever more ruthless competition for disappearing jobs, such a past might retain some appeal. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis search on “East Germany” and “nostalgia” returned 529 articles, many with headlines like “Wealth and freedom? No thanks, we’d rather have a Trabant” (referring to a defunct automobile).

The true story of East Germany’s birth and death could never be conveyed in a film such as this, but there are realities that never surfaced in conventional cold-war narratives. In Carolyn Eisenberg’s “Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949”, we learn that FDR intended that Germany be deindustrialized, demilitarized and–most importantly–denazified after the war, a goal shared by his partner Joseph Stalin. Then along came Harry Truman, who saw Communism as just another impediment to American hegemony. In violation of the Potsdam and Yalta agreements, Truman pushed for reindustrialization of West Germany under the Marshall Plan and the creation of a formal West German state.

Washington then abruptly ended denazification, leaving 640,000 war criminals unprosecuted, and canceled steps to break up the cartels that had provided much of Hitler’s economic and social base. Defying conventional notions of Stalin’s intractability, Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith confessed that “we really do not want nor intend to accept German unification in any terms that the Russians might agree to, even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements.”

And what did the Soviets seek? Nothing but what had already been hammered out at Yalta and Potsdam, namely $10 billion in reparations, four-power control of the Ruhr Valley and vigorous denazification and permanent demilitarization. In exchange, they would accept free elections throughout Germany modeled along the lines of the old Weimar Republic–hardly the stuff of Communist subversion.

When the West reneged on all this, the Soviets began to crack down in the East. The rest is history.

(Good Bye, Lenin is scheduled to open in NY theaters at the end of February. It was the winner of the Best European Film at the Berlin Film Festival.)

 

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.

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