Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 29, 2017

The best documentary on the Vietnam war

Filed under: Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 4:42 pm

It was not funded by the Koch brothers and can now be seen for free.

Bruce Cumings on the Korean War

Filed under: Korea,war — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

September 26, 2017

Thoughts on Ken Burns’s Vietnam documentary

Filed under: Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 12:26 pm

Ken Burns

Stuck in a motel in upstate NY last night, I decided to watch an episode of Ken Burns’s PBS series on the Vietnam war to kill some time. It was far worse than I expected.

The hour and forty-five minutes was focused on events in 1968 and 1969, a period I am deeply familiar with. The methodology was apparent from the outset. Probably 75 percent of it was devoted to war stories from both American and Vietnamese combatants in an effort to be “balanced”. From the Americans, you get both Rambo-like regrets that we didn’t fight better as well as rueful thoughts about how futile it all was. One fairly high-ranking officer asserts that we backed the wrong side since the Communists were such better fighters—sounding as if he bet on the wrong team to win the Super Bowl. From the Vietnamese, we hear from a couple who were both part of the convoys in which arms and other material aid were sent to fighters in the South on the Ho Chi Minh trail. An American pilot spends 5 minutes reminiscing about how when they spotted a convoy, it was often a “turkey shoot” as they dropped bombs and strafed the slow-moving stream of trucks and men. It was like hearing a rapist describe how he beat up and then fucked a helpless woman.

Missing from these war stories from either side was any notion of why they fought. One supposes that the Americans were at a disadvantage since they enlisted (or were dragooned) into a war that was based on the most ludicrous of theories. Vietnam was a domino and if it fell, other dominos in East Asia would fall and the next thing you know, America goes Communist. Since Communism is a dead issue today (even if Trump is trying to revive it over the North Korea standoff), you need other Orwellian threats to keep society lined up behind the ruling class. It is al-Qaeda and ISIS that are the new dominos. The American bombing of Raqqa has killed 40,000 civilians and forced as many as one million more people from their homes. Back in 1968, the left would have organized protests against such a monstrous assault but today the left stands aside with its arms folded. Why? Because it is infected with Islamophobia.

Three passages in this unseemly documentary stuck in my craw.

Burns tells us that after the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese and the NLF were forced to draft new recruits to keep the war going but morale was so poor that men were getting drunk all the time over the despair they felt for being cannon fodder. This is par for the course for television-based history. Where did Burns get this information from? What are his sources? If I was reading an article that made such an assertion, I’d want to fact-check it. I should add that I probably should be inured to this kind of bad faith since I have been putting up with it for six  years in all those articles about how Syrian rebels were acting on orders from the CIA.

In order to stanch the flow of arms and fighters to the South, the USA adopted the Phoenix Program—according to Burns. However, the Phoenix Program was initiated in 1965 and could be best described as death squads designed to break the back of the resistance. Most of the victims of torture and execution were civilians who made the mistake of opposing the American occupation. Doug Valentine, a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, described the program in terms that never would have been conveyed to PBS viewers:

By 1967, killing entire families had become an integral facet of the CIA’s counter-terror program. Robert Slater was the chief of the CIA’s Province Interrogation Center Program from June 1967 through 1969. In a March 1970 thesis for the Defense Intelligence School, titled “The History, Organization and Modus Operandi of the Viet Cong Infrastructure,” Slater wrote, “the District Party Secretary usually does not sleep in the same house or even hamlet where his family lived, to preclude any injury to his family during assassination attempts.”

But, Slater added, “the Allies have frequently found out where the District Party Secretaries live and raided their homes: in an ensuing fire fight the secretary’s wife and children have been killed and injured.”

I should add that Valentine’s article was inspired by news last year that former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey was going to be named chairman of Fulbright University, a US-backed college with ties to the State Department in Ho Chi Minh City. Kerrey’s tenure there was short-lived since there was so much furor over his role in the Phoenix Program. I only wish that my fellow alumni at the New School had produced such quick results when he was serving as president of the New School for Social Research, an institution that had gained fame for hiring scholars driven out of Europe by the Nazi equivalent of the Phoenix Program.

Finally, there is the ridiculous war story by a physician who had been a POW in one of those legendary sadistic compounds that kept them on the brink of starvation. One day a cat that lived in the camp wandered into their midst apparently. They were so hungry that they butchered the cat, removing its head and paws, and then roasted it while the guards weren’t watching. When the guards spotted the charred remains, the prisoners claimed that it was a weasel they had caught and killed. However, when the guard spotted one of the cat’s paws, their goose was cooked since the cat belonged to the commandant. To start with, killing a cat with your bare hands is almost as possible as killing a weasel. Cats are not only pretty damned fierce but capable of screeches and howls when under attack that would have woke the dead, not to speak of Vietnamese guards. The physician claims that he was beaten to within an inch of his life and forced to wear the cat’s carcass around his neck while tied to a pole. You can’t make this shit up but it ends up in a Ken Burns documentary anyhow.

August 9, 2017

Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem

Filed under: jingoism,sports,war — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

As someone who listens to a lot of sports talk radio, I have been struck by the steady drumbeat of all the white callers who make the same point, as if they were almost reading from a script. It goes something like this:

I understand that football players have free speech but when they are on the job, they have no right to go against their employer. It would be okay with me if Colin Kaepernick had called a press conference to speak about Black Lives Matter or anything else but when he is on company time, he had no right to kneel during the Star Spangled Banner.

The first thing you have to ask yourself is what kind of job requires you to sing the national anthem when the workday starts. People working for Walmart are expected to stock shelves, not stand at attention and sing the Star Spangled Banner so why would someone being paid to throw a football or hit a baseball go through a patriotic ritual before they begin working?

On March 12, 1996, Denver Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (neé Chris Jackson) refused to stand for the national anthem with his teammates. As a convert to Islam, this was counter to his religious beliefs. Additionally, he stated that the flag was a symbol of oppression. He was suspended by the NBA for one game but after a compromise worked out with the league, he agreed to stand but would also be permitted to recite a Muslim prayer instead of singing Francis Scott Key’s harmonically tortuous song that included a verse that condemned slaves fighting for the British in exchange for their freedom.

Unlike the NBA, the NFL has no rules about standing for the national anthem, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement does not mention it as well.

The roots of singing the anthem before sporting events go back to the 1918 World Series when WWI jingoism ruled. This was the same year that Debs made a speech denouncing American participation in World War I, which led to his conviction under the Sedition Act of 1918 and a 10 year prison term. The September 6, 1918 NY Times was clear about the nationalist impulse behind the singing of the anthem, which actually occurred during the 7th inning stretch rather than before the game started:

Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world’s series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, which came at Comiskey Park this afternoon during the seventh-inning stretch. As the crowd of 10,274 spectators—the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years—stood up to take their afternoon yawn, that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of ” The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The yawn was checked and heads were .bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the U. S. Navy was at attention, as he stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the vary end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.

The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw when he conquered Hippo Jim Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething flinging duel by a score of 1 to 0. The cheers for America’s stirring song were greater even than the demonstration offered Vaughn when he twice made the mighty Ruth whiff the air.

Nowadays, baseball owners are not content to have such a display before the game begins. During the seventh-inning stretch, the crowd is expected to sing “God Bless America” on various holidays like Fourth of July. Like 1918, it was an outburst of jingoism following September 11, 2001 that led to it being included as part of the nationalist drumbeat in baseball stadiums. It is only in Yankee Stadium and the Atlanta Braves stadium where “God Bless America” is sung at every game during the seventh-inning stretch.

Also like the “Star Spangled Banner” first being played in 1918, “God Bless America” was composed by Irving Berlin that same year as a way of rousing public opinion in favor of fighting in the trench wars “over there”. The USA suffered 116,708 casualties in WWI, which was 0.13% of the population. That’s a considerable figure considering the fact that the USA only entered the war on April 6, 1917. By comparison, American casualties totaled 58,209 in the Vietnam War, which was 0.0003% of the population.

Most of you are probably familiar with how the song usually starts: “God bless America, land that I love” but the lyrics that precede it will give you a better sense of Berlin’s intentions:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:

Woody Guthrie hated the song, which was sung ceaselessly on the radio in the 1930s by Kate Smith. He decided to write “This Land is Your Land” as a way of answering Irving Berlin’s pro-war lyrics.

Norman Lear, who just turned down an invitation to be honored at the Kennedy Center because of his disgust with Donald Trump, created “All in the Family” in the early 70s as a way of protesting the Vietnam War and racism. Archie Bunker was the head of the family and about as ignorant and backward as Trump. His son Michael Stivic was a stand-in for people like me, although he never expressed anything remotely sounding like Trotskyism on the show. This argument between Archie and Michael was repeated a million times across America over dinner tables and sounds very much like the reaction to Colin Kaepernick:

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.

September 24, 2016


Filed under: mechanical anti-imperialism,Syria,war — louisproyect @ 1:17 pm



However just as the war crime of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today. When the survival of a country and its culture and history is at stake, war can never be anything else but ugly, which is why the sooner it is brought to a conclusion in Syria the better.

John Wight

Syria’s war escalated abruptly on Friday as government forces and their Russian allies launched ferocious aerial assaults on opposition-held areas of Aleppo amid threats of a big ground offensive, while efforts at the United Nations to revive a cease-fire appeared to collapse.

Repeated airstrikes that obliterated buildings and engulfed neighborhoods in flames killed about 100 people in Aleppo, the divided northern Syrian city that has epitomized the horrors of the war, turning the brief cease-fire of last week and hopes for humanitarian relief into faint memories. The bombings knocked out running water to an estimated two million people, the United Nations said.

“It is the worst day that we’ve had for a very long time,” said James Le Mesurier, the head of Mayday Rescue, which trains Syrian rescue workers. “They are calling it Dresden-esque.”

NY Times, ‘Doomsday Today in Aleppo’: Assad and Russian Forces Bombard City, September 24, 2016

September 11, 2016

9/11 sketches

Filed under: war — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

I moved into Grogan Towers in Hoboken in 1975 just two years after the WTC went up. This subsidized high-rise was named after the former mayor of Hoboken who was SWP member Pat Grogan’s dad. Grogan Towers had an unobstructed view of the WTC that I could enjoy from my picture window overlooking the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline. I never gave much thought to them except for really enjoying the reflection of the setting sun on the buildings that endowed them with a scarlet glow. When I had a party up in my 25th floor apartment once for Hoboken’s bohemia, I showed artist and the city’s unofficial historian Jim Hans the photo I had taken of the WTC at sunset. He smiled and said, “Very nice. It reminds me of the red glow on a dog’s penis when he is aroused.” I couldn’t tell if Jim was putting me down or whether he was complimenting me, although I leaned toward the latter. That had no effect on my admiration for his passion for Hoboken that bore fruit in the small-scale museum he established in 1986. Like the WTC, the Grogan Towers were demolished long ago—the first a victim of terror, the second a victim of gentrification.

A day after the WTC went down, I wrote about it on the various mailing lists I belonged to. This was before blogs existed. I found what I wrote on the archives of the World Systems Network, a mailing list devoted to the theories associated with Immanuel Wallerstein.

One of the key elements of the transformation of New York was the building of the World Trade Center in an area formerly dominated by small manufacturing and retail. The loss of such businesses meant the loss of a working class. I used to love wandering around this neighborhood, looking into electronics shops, bookstores, etc. Now it nothing but granite and glass. I should say, broken granite and glass.

I quoted from a Sidney Trachtenberg article that had appeared in The Columbus Dispatch on January 30,2000.

Le Corbusier believed that the house was “a machine for living.” Darton says “Corbusier argued that the concentration and disorder of the modern city could be cured by increasing urban density. This would be accomplished by erecting very tall buildings on a small portion of the total ground area.”

Perhaps the French architect’s most radical position: “There ought,” he once wrote, “not to be such things as streets.”

Despite the destruction of the WTC, its legacy lives on in a million different ways, from CVS, Chase Bank and Starbucks that have swarmed over the city like a blitzkrieg to the invasion of oligarchs who live in $25 million condos in Chelsea, another neighborhood that has succumbed to the globalization of finance that allows American capital to grow wings and take flight everywhere and its cohorts in places like China, Russia and India to mark Manhattan as its home territory just like a dog pissing on a parking meter.

Le Corbusier had a brief fling with the USSR from 1928 to 1932, when his proposal for the Palace of the Soviets in 1932 was nixed. Like many “futurists”, his aesthetics could easily be adopted by Marxists and fascists alike. Like Lenin, he was mesmerized by Taylorism and the Ford Motor Company assembly lines. He proposed to French capitalists a style of architecture that would incorporate his ideas.

His 1922 scheme for a “Contemporary City” entailed sixty-story skyscrapers made of walls of glass—in other words, what much of NY looks like today. At the center of a complex would be a transportation hub just like the one that the Port Authority envisioned for the WTC. Le Corbusier was a huge fan of the automobile and advocated that pedestrians be kept far from streets that were meant for high-speed transportation rather than leisurely window-shopping.

Appalled by the economic decline of the 1930s, he became a fascist. Recently, there have been reports on how his politics and aesthetics overlapped. On July 12, 2015, the NY Times reported:

In 1940, just days before a Vichy ruling banning Jews from elective office and other professions, Le Corbusier wrote to his mother: “The Jews are going through a very bad time. I am sometimes contrite about it. But it does seem as if their blind thirst for money had corrupted the country.”

But, scholars note, he also built for Jewish families in Switzerland, never publicly denounced Jews and never joined a fascist organization. “It’s an error in my view to insist on his anti-Semitism,” Mr. Chaslin said. But what he and his fellow authors find more troubling is the architect’s involvement in the 1920s with the right-wing elements. Later, some Vichy supporters saw his well-ordered Radiant City plan for Marseille, France — based on the shape of the human body — as a perfect expression of the Fascist program.

During the Second World War he was friendly with Alexis Carrel, a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon asked by the Vichy government to explore means of “national renewal.” Le Corbusier had read and enthusiastically underlined Carrel’s 1935 best seller, “Man, the Unknown,” which argues that parts of the French population should be gassed to preserve the most “virile” elements.

For weeks after September 11th, the city smelled from the charred wreckage of the twin towers. My next door neighbor was a woman in her 30s and a bit of a crank. She once accused me of placing her garbage at her front door as if she had any right to be so accusatory when she was obliged to drop the trash into a chute on our floor. One night she knocked on my door at around 10pm. What did she want? To accuse me again of some other offense? She said that she thought our building was on fire. No, I replied, that is only the WTC ruins that you smell. She said she couldn’t believe me and went back to her apartment.

About a year ago I had a chat with a man who lived down the hall and the subject of the WTC came up, I can’t remember why. He told me that he was working as a programmer about two blocks from the towers and saw people jumping out the windows. It disturbed him so much that he was in psychotherapy for a year. Can you imagine what Syrians must be feeling now after five years of war? Isn’t it logical that the growth of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS is to some extent a result of Arabs wanting to retaliate for the terror they have endured for decades now? And we “get back” at them by using Predator drones against wedding parties and joining Putin soon in bombing East Aleppo.

In the same month as the WTC went down, Bush invaded Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. On the day the war started, there was excitement in the air, so much so that a guy walking next to me on 3rd Avenue near my building turned to me with big smile on his face and said, “Now we are getting those bastards”. Since he had a bit of an accent, I asked him where he was from. His answer was Guyana. I told him that he should be more careful about endorsing American intervention abroad since the president of his country had been overthrown in 1953 in a coup backed by Britain and the USA. He looked at me like I had two heads.

A couple of months later my boss moved me from the cubicle I occupied at Columbia University because the guy in the next cubicle had been complaining about the phone conversations I was having with an old friend about Bush’s barbaric war.

I was moved away from the programmers into an office with a door that I liked to leave open since closing it made me feel cooped up. The only drawback to leaving it open was having to hear the PC support people who surrounded me in their various cubicles whooping it up every day about Bush blasting the Afghans to kingdom come. Finally, at my wit’s end, I told them to quiet down because I didn’t want to have to listen to their war cries. They too looked at me like I had two heads.

The war fever was all around me in NYC, on the TV and radio. Even the left succumbed with Christopher Hitchens being the most extreme example. I went to the Galloway-Hitchens debate and felt great about Galloway’s take-down.

Oddly enough, I discovered that I had written an article for CounterPunch at the time about the debate. It must have been one of those infrequent moments when I wasn’t feuding with the editors. Here’s a snippet:

Hitchens’s supporters in the audience were just as crazed as their hero. While Galloway’s supporters, including me, were content to absorb his rapier-like arguments, the opposite side seemed more like the sort of people who show up at athletic events, including one woman who kept screaming at the top of her lungs. Another Hitchens supporter, a young man in his mid-20’s I would guess, sat in the row in front of me and seemed determined to argue with everybody around him in what he must have considered a superior Socratic method: “So you would have not intervened against Hitler then?” But mostly he couldn’t sit still, jumping around in his seat like a monkey overdosed on Methamphetamines.

History seems to be repeating itself now. If poor Christopher Hitchens hadn’t croaked from cancer of the esophagus, isn’t it possible that he and Galloway would be reconciled now that the USA and Russia have agreed to unite in a popular front to  “get al-Qaeda”?Perhaps the only constant in politics over the last 15 years is that you can’t go wrong with Islamophobia. The solution to Sharia law, beards and terror is aerial bombardment, something that has a long history.

In 1919 Winston Churchill wrote: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.” This is the Churchill who was commemorated on the Socialist Unity website that features the musings of one John Wight, a regular contributor to CounterPunch about the need to destroy al-Qaeda. Go figure.

Nothing much has changed. The Muslims were the first to be bombed by the air and remain the one people in the world today who are being targeted by American Predator drones, Russian and Syrian bombers with the assistance of other European imperialist powers determined to keep the homeland safe. In 1919, the British were anxious to put down a rebellion in Somalia led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan who Wikipedia describes as having a “thirst for Islamic learning…so intense that he left his job and devoted about ten years to visiting many famous centres of Islamic learning including Harar and Mogadishu and even some centres in Sudan.”

This is what obviously made England determined to get rid of him. Such a fanatic could not be allowed to run a country. In Sven Lindqvist’s “A History of Bombing”, a book I keep returning to help me understand the mad world we are living in today, he describes the British version of Operation Enduring Freedom:

Mohammed Abdille Hassan, called “The Mad Mullah” by his enemies, had long been a thorn in the British lion’s paw. Countless punitive expeditions had failed to punish him. Now the general staff wanted to engage two divisions for twelve months in a big offensive against the mullah. In addition, millions would be required to build the roads, railroads, and military bases necessary to occupy the country. Trenchard proposed to fix the mullah from the air, with twelve airplanes and a maximum of 250 men. Squadron 221, which soon would bomb Tsaritsyn—later Stalingrad—on behalf of the British Empire, was first sent to Somaliland. Mohammed A. Hassan had never seen an airplane, much less a bomb. He gave no evidence of fear. He did what he usually did when he had unexpected visitors: he dressed in his finest clothes and presented himself, surrounded by his most respected counselors, in front of his house under a white canopy that was used on ceremonial occasions. There he awaited the arrival of the foreign emissaries. The first bomb almost put an end to the war. It killed Mohammed’s counselors, and he himself had his clothes singed by the explosion. The next bombardment killed his sister and several of his immediate family members. Then for two days the British bombers attacked Mohammed and his family while they fled through the desert like hunted animals. Finally they were forced to give up. Total time required: a week instead of a year. Total cost: 77,000 pounds—chicken shit compared to what the army had asked for. Churchill was delighted. He persuaded the government to maintain the air force out of purely economic considerations. Then he offered the RAF six million pounds to take over control of the Iraq operation from the army, which had cost eighteen million thus far.

The war on terror continues. As Kurt Vonnegut said in “Slaughterhouse Five”, so it goes.

December 14, 2015

Radical takes on World War Two

Filed under: Fascism,imperialism/globalization,Syria,war — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

For baby boomers the decision to join a Trotskyist group in the 1960s entailed coming to terms with WWII especially if you were a Jew. Unlike the Maoists (the CP was generally not an option in those wild times), the Trotskyists viewed the war as a continuation of the inter-imperialist disaster of 1914. As someone who became persuaded by Trotsky’s ideas, putting the war into historical context was made easier by the analysis of Ernest Mandel, a Jew and a member of the Belgian resistance during WWII so committed to class politics that he distributed anti-fascist leaflets to German troops whom he regarded as “workers in uniform”.

His 1976 essay “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two” drew distinctions between the allies versus axis conflict and those that involved struggles for self-determination or the right of the USSR to defend itself from counter-revolution by any means necessary.

Ernest Mandel and the authors represented in Donny Gluckstein’s collection Fighting on All Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War are part of a broader current that rose to prominence during the 1960s out of their “revisionist” take on the supposedly Good War. This includes Howard Zinn, whose chapter on WWII in a People’s History of the United States is titled “A People’s War?” and a number of New Leftist historians like Gabriel Kolko and Gar Alperovitz. To a large extent, Lyndon Johnson’s simultaneous embrace of New Deal domestic policies and the genocidal war in Vietnam forced leftist historians to come to terms with FDR’s historical legacy. The war that many of our fathers fought in, including my own who received a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge, had to evaluated in the light of Marx’s “ruthless criticism of the existing order_, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

Donny Gluckstein is the son of Yigael Gluckstein, better known as Tony Cliff—the founder of the British SWP. He is a lecturer at Edinbergh College and a member of the SWP. He is also the author of A People’s History of the Second World War, a book that comes highly recommended based on the evidence of the new collection. I learned about Fighting on All Fronts from Tom O’Lincoln who contributed the article “Australia: A war of racism, imperialism and resistance”. I have known O’Lincoln for nearly twenty years as a cyber-comrade and have deep respect for his scholarship. He is a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, a group that shares the SWP’s general theoretical approach but that is not part of its worldwide tendency. With Tom’s recommendation, I looked forward to reading Fighting on All Fronts since WWII “revisionism” is very close to my heart. Suffice it to say that I was not disappointed.

The book is divided into two parts: War in the West and War in the East. While every article is praiseworthy both in terms of the scholarship and the commitment to a class analysis so sorely missing nowadays, I would like to focus on one article from each part to serve as an introduction to a volume that excels from beginning to end.

Janey Stone’s “Jewish Resistance in Eastern Europe” is a stunning treatment of a topic that is of special interest to me as a Jew and a radical. Stone is a Jew whose mother lost most of her family in the Holocaust and who describes herself as an anti-Zionist. It delves into questions that go to the very heart of Jewish identity and survival. As she unravels the conflicting strands of Zionism, collaboration and working-class resistance, Stone tells a story that is simultaneously inspiring and dispiriting.

The brunt of her article is to challenge the idea that Jews went passively to their death in concentration camps, a view reinforced by both mainstream scholarship and popular culture, with “Schindler’s List” depicting Jews as lambs going to the slaughter and needing a Christian savior.

While nobody would apply the term savior to Jan Karski, a Pole and a Christian, his efforts on behalf of Jews would have made an interesting screenplay but arguably one that Hollywood would have dropped like a hot potato given its take on Roosevelt. Stone explains that after Karski prepared a report on the death camps in Eastern Europe that he discovered after penetrating the Warsaw Ghetto disguised as a Ukrainian soldier, he went to FDR to alert him to the impending human disaster. Karski was disappointed to discover that the president was more interested in the status of Polish horses than that of the nation’s Jews.

Ultimately it would be up to the Jews themselves to organize their defense with the Jewish Labor Bund providing most of the leadership. Stone describes the confrontation between Polish fascists who had been terrorizing Jewish shopkeepers and Jewish activists in 1938 that resulted in ambulances being summoned to carry off the battered thugs who had been lured into an ambush.

Stone tackles the stereotypical view of Poles as anti-Semites with copious evidence to the contrary, especially among the working class that was by and large committed to socialist politics. Furthermore, even in the peasantry, which was by no means as progressive as the workers, there was much more anti-Semitism among the wealthy farmers than those toward the bottom. When peasants organized a ten-day general strike in 1937, the Jews offered support. A Bundist youth leader reported: “During the strike you could see bearded Chassidim [religious Jews] on the picket lines along with peasants.”

Given the widespread attention to Hannah Arendt’s contention in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Judenrat (Jewish council) was complicit in the extermination of millions of Jews, Stone’s nuanced treatment of this question is essential reading. Citing Lenni Brenner, whose research into this period is essential, Stone points out that Zionists were selected by the Nazis to staff the Judenrat more than all other political groups combined. The remainder came from the traditional Jewish religious establishment.

Some Judenrat figures were barely distinguishable from the Nazis, including Mordechai Rumkowski from the Lodz Ghetto who ran it as a slave labor camp. However, in most cases the collaborationists simply failed to support the Bundist underground and opposed all forms of struggle.

Despite such treachery, struggles did break out. Bundists were on the front lines but so were Labor Zionists. The Zionist officialdom might have made common cause with the Nazis but the more radical youth groups such as Hashomer Hatzair were willing to fight. However, not every Jew was strong enough to engage in combat. For many, the determination to survive was paramount. Setting up soup kitchens or creating art to raise peoples’ spirits was their way of joining the resistance. Even humor was used as a weapon. A joke made the rounds in this bleak world: A Jewish teacher asks his pupil, “Tell me, Moshe, what would you like to be if you were Hitler’s son?” An orphan was the reply.

Although Jews were most often left to their own devices to fight against the Nazi genocide, there were allies. As stated above, the Poles often acted in solidarity despite the fact that they risked certain death if discovered. Stone singles out Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews that was founded in 1944.

Zegota’s headquarters was the home of a Polish Socialist (Eugenia Wasowska) who had worked closely with the Bund. The organisation held “office hours” twice each week at which time couriers went in and out. Despite the enormous number of people who knew its location, the headquarters were never raided by the Germans. One “branch office” was a fruit and vegetable kiosk operated by Ewa Brzuska, an old woman known to everybody as “Babcia” (Granny). Babcia hid papers and money under the sauerkraut and pickle barrels and always had sacks of potatoes ready to hide Jewish children.

The best known Zegota activist is Irene Sendler, head of the children’s division. A social worker and a socialist, she grew up with close links to the Jewish community and could speak Yiddish. Sendler had protested against anti-Semitism in the 1930s: she deliberately sat with Jews in segregated university lecture halls and nearly got expelled. Irene Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing them with false documents and sheltering them in individual and group children’s homes outside the ghetto.

Turning to William Crane’s article “Burma: Through two imperialisms to independence”, we are reminded that for many people living in the British Empire, Japan could appear as the lesser evil especially in a place like Burma where George Orwell worked as a cop. In his essay “Shooting an Elephant”, he reflected on the surly natives.

In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

As was the case with India’s Congress Party, resistance to colonialism in Burma was fairly tame with native elites seeking an end to the sort of discrimination that was revealed in Orwell’s complaints. Its vanguard was the Young Man’s Buddhist Association that was founded in 1906 by a British-educated Burmese lawyer.

Eventually the movement grew more militant even if its leadership remained in the hands of the elites who referred to themselves as Thakins, the word for masters. In a new movement that emerged in the 1930s called We Burmans Association, the Thakins drew upon working class support to extract concessions from the British. Like many colonial elites living under British rule, the Burmese nationalists were seduced to some extent by fascist ideology. If “democracy” meant living under the British boot, it was no surprise that rival imperialisms might have a certain appeal.

But another rival to British capitalist democracy had even greater appeal, namely the USSR. In 1939 the first Communist cell was created in Burma under the leadership of an Indian named Narendra Dutt. Despite being a member of this cell, a man named Aung San decided in mid-1940 that an alliance with Japanese imperialism would be more useful for the cause of Burmese independence. He worked closely with Keiji Suzuki, a colonel in the Imperial army who had come to Burma disguised as a businessman and charged with the responsibility of lining up support from nationalists like Aung San, who was the father of Burma’s new president—a reformer who has shown little interest in attacking the deep state that has been in existence for many decades.

Along with other Thakins, Aun San constituted themselves as the Thirty Comrades who became the core of Burma’s wartime armed forces. They received training by the Japanese military in occupied China and began recruiting the men who would join with the Japanese in 1942 in a general assault on British rule. If your yardstick for judging political movements is based on how they lined up in WWII, you will certainly have condemned Aung San on an a priori basis. But as Trotsky pointed out in a 1938 essay titled “Learn to Think”, there are times when workers will find it advantageous to make temporary deals with fascist imperialism rather than its democratic rivals. The only caveat, of course, is that such deals are strictly pragmatic and strictly temporary.

Unfortunately in the case of Burma, the deal was more like a double-deal when the Japanese began their occupation. Aung San and his comrades had exchanged one colonial oppressor for another.

One of the most glaring examples of Japanese disregard for Burmese rights was the construction of a “Death Railway” that became the subject of Pierre Boulle’s novel “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and the 1957 film directed by David Lean based on Boulle’s novel. You are probably aware that Alec Guinness played the British prisoner of war who in supervising the work crew made up of POW’s lost sight of its use to the Japanese war effort. He saw the bridge much more in terms of Britain’s “civilizing” role in places like India where railways and telegraphs supposedly outweighed colonial exploitation, even in the eyes of Karl Marx early in his career.

What the film leaves out was the costs of its construction on native lives. For that you need to read William Crane’s article:

The conditions for the native labourers in Burma were equivalent if not worse as they were unprotected by even the semblance of concern for the welfare of POWs. The railway upon its completion had consumed as many as 100,000 lives. But we need to draw no special conclusions about the Japanese psyche from the “Death Railway” or any of their other horrific crimes. For the Japanese were trying to catch up with the “civilised” empires of Britain and France, and in the course of this ended up competing with the death tolls they had accumulated over a much longer period of time during the few years of the war. The railway, like the Shoah in Eastern Europe, was the outcome of this process, the realisation of a dream that “projected Japanese dreams of industrial fortitude, economic robustness, and Asian domination”.

Like Donny Gluckstein’s collection, James Heartfield’s Unpatriotic History of World War Two belongs on the same bookshelf along with Zinn, Kolko and Alperovitz. Written in 2012, it is a close to a 500 page debunking of the Good War mythology that is filled with deep insights into how really bad it was. If the Gluckstein collection focuses more on the progressive movements that coincided with a savage bloodletting, Heartfield’s book concentrates much more on the latter. It would be difficult for anybody to read his book and be taken in by the Greatest Generation balderdash that continues to dominate the mainstream narratives of an inter-imperialist rivalry whose damage to humanity and nature alike remains unparalleled.

As many of you realize, I have been sharply critical of Spiked Online, a website that is the latest permutation of a one-time current on the British left known as the Revolutionary Communist Party that emerged as a split from the group that would become Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party. While I generally found the contrarianism of the RCP problematic, particularly around environmental issues, I must admit that any influence it had on James Heartfield’s willingness to spend years of research to write this book that sticks its finger in the eye of the Good War nonsense is to be commended. With so much of the left ready to see the Russian adventure in Syria as a repeat of the war of liberation led by the Red Army against Nazi barbarism, it is of considerable importance to have a book like the Unpatriotic History in our arsenal.

One of the prime dispensers of WWII patriotic gore is the website Socialist Unity that counts John Wight as one of its primary contributors. At one time I considered it a useful resource for regroupment efforts such as the one that took place when RESPECT was a major player on the British left. But when it became obvious that its more fundamental purpose was to breathe life into the Great War mythology and Labour Party reformism, I realized that one’s attitude toward Winston Churchill remained a litmus test for the left. When Socialist Unity began posting “greatest generation” type nonsense about Churchill, I tried to remind Wight et al that the famine in Bengal was really not that great. Suffice it to say that the take on the famine at Socialist Unity amounted to a kind of genocide denial.

The chief value of Heartfield’s book is its copious documentation on how people such as Roosevelt, Churchill, and even Stalin were no better than the Japanese and Germans around a number of questions, particularly their treatment of working people who were cannon fodder and virtual slaves in wartime production when the elementary right to strike was viewed as treasonous.

Chapter Six of Unpatriotic History is titled “Imperialist War” and makes for essential reading. Like every other chapter, it is filled with revealing data and quotations from the warmakers that hoists them on their own petard. Heartfield cites Leo Amery, The Secretary of State for India:

After all, smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world. It will be no consolation to suggest that Hitler should be replaced by Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek or even an American President if we cease to exercise our power and influence in the world.

While promoted as a benign free trade policy, Roosevelt’s Open Door Policy was a bid to replace Britain as the world’s number one empire as Leo Amery clearly understood. After signing the Atlantic Charter, FDR articulated the kind of paternalism usually associated with his fifth cousin Theodore:

there seems no reason why the principle of trusteeship in private affairs should not be extended to the international field. Trusteeship is based on the principle of unselfish service. For a time at least there are many minor children among the peoples of the world who need trustees in their relations with other nations and peoples.

But the grand prize for overall depravity goes to Winston Churchill based on this account that clearly would have offended his fans at Socialist Unity:

At a Cabinet meeting on 10 November 1943, Prime Minister Churchill said Indians had brought famine on themselves because they were ‘breeding like rabbits’ and so would have to pay the price of their own improvidence. Churchill’s prejudices were backed up by his chief scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, in a letter the following day: ‘This shortage of food is likely to be endemic in a country where the population is always increased until only bare subsistence is possible.’ Cherwell carried on to turn the truth on its head, moaning as if it was Britain that was subsidising India, not the other way around:

After the war India can spend her huge hoards of sterling on buying food and thus increase the population still more, but so long as the war lasts her high birth rate may impose a heavy strain on this country [i.e. Britain] which does not view with Asiatic detachment the pressure of a growing population on limited supplies of food.

Let me conclude with some parting thoughts on the spate of World War Two nostalgia that has followed in the wake of Russian entry into the war on the Syrian people. On September 28th, Vladimir Putin made a speech at the UN proposing a coalition against ISIS similar to the one that united the USA, Britain and the USSR in World War Two.

What we actually propose is to be guided by common values and common interests rather than by ambitions. Relying on international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.

John Wight was obviously one person carried away by this rhetoric to the point of swooning. Showing that he would not be taken in by any weak-kneed aversion to the necessary tasks of a war on fascism, he informed his readers at Huffington Post and CounterPunch that firebombing Dresden and barrel-bombing open-air markets in Syria were not game-changers:

Barrel bombs are an atrociously indiscriminate weapon, for sure, and their use rightly comes under the category of war crime. However just as the war crime of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today. When the survival of a country and its culture and history is at stake, war can never be anything else but ugly, which is why the sooner it is brought to a conclusion in Syria the better.

This specious blast of hot air is so filled with bad faith and faulty logic that it would take a year to elaborate on all of its sinister implications. So let me take a minute to nail them down.

To begin with, the war between Germany and the USA was a war between empires. As Leo Amery stated above, “smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world.” The democracy enjoyed by Britain was made possible only by its super-exploitation of India, Kenya, Burmese, Egypt, China, et al. This was obvious to anyone who has read Lenin even if it was lost on an aspiring Colonel Blimp like John Wight.

But the most important insight that can be gleaned by Wight’s invocation of the Good War is its affinity with a figure whose ghost walks across the parapet of the Assadist left, namely Christopher Hitchens. His footprints can be seen in all of the Islamophobic articles that appear on a daily basis from people like Wight, Mike Whitney and Pepe Escobar who recently referred to the anti-Assad fighters as “mongrels”, the kind of epithet that usually rolls off the tongues of Israeli politicians.

In 2008 Hitchens wrote an article titled “WW2, a War Worth Fighting” that essentially sums up the outlook of laptop bombardiers like John Wight and everybody else extolling the air war on Syrian rebels from the safety of their offices in the USA or Great Britain–especially the last sentence that jibes with Wight’s ghoulish musings on Dresden.

Is there any one shared principle or assumption on which our political consensus rests, any value judgment on which we are all essentially agreed? Apart from abstractions such as a general belief in democracy, one would probably get the widest measure of agreement for the proposition that the second world war was a “good war” and one well worth fighting. And if we possess one indelible image of political immorality and cowardice, it is surely the dismal tap-tap-tap of Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella as he turned from signing the Czechs away to Adolf Hitler at Munich. He hoped by this humiliation to avert war, but he was fated to bring his countrymen war on top of humiliation. To the conventional wisdom add the titanic figure of Winston Churchill as the emblem of oratorical defiance and the Horatius who, until American power could be mobilized and deployed, alone barred the bridge to the forces of unalloyed evil. When those forces lay finally defeated, their ghastly handiwork was uncovered to a world that mistakenly thought it had already “supped full of horrors.” The stark evidence of the Final Solution has ever since been enough to dispel most doubts about, say, the wisdom or morality of carpet-bombing German cities.

June 9, 2015

In response to a Pentagon official (and Bard College graduate)

Filed under: bard college,war — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

Malia Du Mont

Recently a spate of comments showed up on my blog in response to an article I wrote last year calling attention to Bard College’s increasing ties to the American military. There is the matter of joint academic conferences held with West Point, the military academy about a half-hour’s drive from Bard. I was also intrigued by the role played by Malia Du Mont, a Bard graduate who was leading a tour of the Pentagon. I quoted from the Bard website:

Malia Du Mont ’95 is special assistant to the chief of staff in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs. Malia majored in Chinese at Bard, and after graduation moved to China, where she spent a year teaching English and a year doing graduate studies. In 1997 she moved to Beijing to serve as a Defense Intelligence Agency intern and bilingual research assistant at the United States embassy. “At Bard, joining the military never entered my mind,” she says. “But I was interested in service to my country, and living in China, I gained an appreciation of American freedoms.”

I can only conclude that a spike in readership of the article prompted the comments. Usually I can track this down from a link to the article that is documented in my WordPress dashboard but in this case there was none. A bit of a mystery all in all but welcomed since there’s nothing I love better than tweaking the nose of Leon Botstein and the sort of students he has cultivated during his presidency-for-life. In the old days it was beatnik poets and religious mystics. Now it is Pentagon officials. Sigh.

I post the comments below and will follow up with my reply:

Malia Du Mont

So you think the military should be secretive and off limits? It is your right (and your responsibility) as an American to understand all the instruments of our democracy. Pentagon tours are open to the public, just as are tours of the White House or the Smithsonian Museum of Art. Apply at the link here. http://pentagontours.osd.mil/ You are keeping yourself deliberately misinformed and ignorant, and are accusing people of guilt by association. That does not strike me as keeping with the best of Bard. “Parents, don’t let your kids grow up to be close-minded cynics.”

From an FoM (Friend of Malia)

Malia Du Mont is a Kennedy School classmate and a friend of mine. It’s one thing to take issue with DoD (and yes, there is plenty to take issue with) but your slanderous mischaracterization of her is as insulting as it is without merit. But hey, you have a problem with the Pentagon, so why not just denigrate a smart, thoughtful, and decent person who decided to serve her country in a military uniform? Thanks for nothing.

Bill Hornbostel

As someone who both went to Bard and actually knows Malia Du Mont, I have to say that I am saddened by your rather casual character assassination of her. It appears to be founded in your rigid adherence to a black-and-white ideology, and also utterly unmoored to either knowledge of her personally, or of knowledge of the world beyond the cloisters of academia. Indeed, my perusal of your writings shows you to be merely the equal and opposite to the propagandists at the likes of Fox News. Frankly, I would expect a better, more critical, and more nuanced quality of thought from a Bard graduate. There is more in the world than is dreamt of your you [sic] limited philosophy, lad.

To Ms. Du Mont:

Look, a tour of the Pentagon is not a blow on behalf of transparency. Our problem today is that an imperial presidency is making decisions that are being kept secret from the American people. The use of drone warfare is not subject to democratic decision-making as should be obvious at this point. A tour of the Pentagon is not going to reveal how and why innocent people keep getting killed. Today’s NY Times had an article that is a chilling reminder of how Obama’s Star Chamber is operating without accountability:

WASHINGTON — The families of an anti-Qaeda cleric and a police officer killed in an American drone strike in Yemen filed suit in federal court in Washington on Sunday night, asking the court to declare that the strike was unlawful.

The lawsuit, which seeks no monetary damages, is described by the complainants as an attempt to break through the secrecy surrounding drone strikes and to have the court impose some public accountability for mistakes made in the program.

It cites President Obama’s decision in April to publicly disclose that a separate American strike, on a Qaeda compound in Pakistan, had inadvertently killed two Western hostages, an American and an Italian.

The lawsuit notes that Mr. Obama said at the time that the hostages’ “families deserve to know the truth” and that the United States was willing “to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

The lawsuit asks for the same consideration for the families of Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, the cleric, and Waleed bin Ali Jaber, his cousin, the sole traffic police officer in their village of Khashamir. Both men were Yemeni citizens.

“There is a simple question at the heart of this claim,” the suit says. “The president has now admitted to killing innocent Americans and Italians with drones; why are the bereaved families of innocent Yemenis less entitled to the truth?”

To a “Friend of Malia”:

I am not sure how I am “denigrating” Ms. Du Mont. I said that she reminded me of the CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty”. I thought that she would have regarded that as a compliment even though I have little use for killers myself, in or out of uniform.

To Bill Hornbostel

You believe that my writings demonstrate that I am “the equal and opposite to the propagandists at the likes of Fox News.” I am not sure what to make of that. I have always regarded Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz as the liberal counterparts of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. My orientation is Marxist, an outlook that might be unfamiliar to you since Leon Botstein booted Joel Kovel, one of the few Marxists in the faculty. In terms of my “limited philosophy”, I guess that opposing drone warfare—the number one strategy of Ms. Du Mont’s superiors today—puts me in good company even if that makes me an outlier to other Bard graduates.

Drone Warfare

A project of the Peace Action Education Fund
In cooperation with the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare          

The Release below was sent and published in Religion News Service

Press Release sent: June 1, 2015 

Interfaith Letter Expressing Grave Concerns on Drone Warfare Sent to President Obama and Congress

 Twenty-nine faith leaders from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh traditions have sent an Interfaith Letter on Drone Warfare to President Barak Obama and the U.S. Congress.

 The signers say it is morally unacceptable that thousands of innocent people have been killed by US lethal drone strikes. The letter also raises concerns that targeted killings by drones lack transparency and accountability. Finally the letter argues that drone strikes do not make Americans safer, but rather aid recruitment by extremist groups.

 Elizabeth Beavers, Co-Convener of the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare, noted that many human rights groups and journalists have tried to tally the casualties from drone strikes[1]. A recent study by the Open Society Foundation found that in nine case studies in Yemen, innocent civilians were documented to have been killed in all nine drone strikes[2].

 In their letter, the interfaith leaders point to more effective methods of combating extremism through nonviolent-creative strategies, including sustainable humanitarian and development assistance, and programs that address the political, economic and social exclusion that fuel radicalization.

About Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare

The Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare is a project of the Princeton-based Peace Action Education Fund, and works in cooperation with the DC-based Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare. The Interfaith Network was formed following an Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare held January 23-25, 2015, attended by some 150 diverse faith leaders from across the country at Princeton Theological Seminary. Details of the Interfaith Conference, including the statement adopted by the attendees, can be found at peacecoalition.org/dronesconference.

March 17, 2015

On John Gray’s critique of Steven Pinker

Filed under: sociobiology,war — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

John Gray

John Gray doesn’t care for Steven Pinker’s 2011 “The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes” at all. Who can blame him? It is a sociobiological defense of the state against “primitive” peoples who are made out to be much more violent than the Third Reich.

His first swipe at the book appeared in the September 11, 2011 edition of Prospect Magazine. He took another whack at him in the Guardian on October 15, 2011. The first paragraph was delightfully malicious:

Steven Pinker is one of those wunderkinder that elite US universities seem to specialise in producing. Born in Canada in 1954, he’s currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, but ever since he arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976 he’s been bouncing like a high-IQ tennis ball between Harvard and its prestigious neighbour, MIT (he has professorial chairs at both institutions). By profession he’s an experimental psychologist who began doing research on visual cognition but eventually moved into studying language, especially language acquisition in children. He probably knows more about mankind’s use of verbs, and particularly the distinction between irregular and regular ones, than any other man, living or dead.

I love the “high-IQ tennis ball” bit, don’t you?

But the latest installment has probably gotten more exposure than the first two on the Internet. It appeared once again in the Guardian four days ago and is longer than the first two put together. Since he really has Pinker’s number, I hope it is not the last go-round.

I was intrigued by Gray’s reference to Pinker as a defender of Enlightenment values:

Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment thinking. Reviewing Pinker, Singer writes: “During the Enlightenment, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, an important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, duelling and extreme forms of punishment … Pinker refers to this as ‘the humanitarian revolution’.” Here too Pinker and Singer belong in a contemporary orthodoxy. With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what they piously describe as “Enlightenment values”. But these values were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed. John Locke denied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes”; Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance. None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker.

Come to think of it, Vivek Chibber didn’t pay much attention to these views either. I always considered Marx to be a critic of the Enlightenment even though that in stating this I might come across as an unreconstructed subalternist. Those are the breaks, I guess.

Although I have never read Pinker’s book, I am familiar with his arguments, which are closely related to those made by Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon, another couple of sociobiologists who view hunting-and-gathering societies as deeply criminal and homicidal. My own take on Pinker is here: https://louisproyect.org/2011/10/04/steven-pinker-hobbes-pangloss/. And on Jared Diamond here: https://louisproyect.org/2008/11/03/jared-diamond-on-tribal-warfare-in-new-guinea/. And finally on Chagnon there is this: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/22/chagnons-war/.

My emphasis is more on correcting the record on the so-called “savages” than it is on pointing out how barbaric modern civilization really is. Most of Gray’s latest article discusses the monumental scale of modern warfare including the prospect of an all-out nuclear war that will make the notion of steady progress toward peaceful relations among states altogether moot. If an H-bomb is dropped on Harvard, I doubt that Pinker will be in much shape to defend his arguments. Along those lines I did find this historical reference by Gray intriguing:

Discussing the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in which nuclear war was narrowly averted, Pinker dismisses the view that “the de-escalation was purely a stroke of uncanny good luck”. Instead, he explains the fact that nuclear war was avoided by reference to the superior judgment of Kennedy and Khrushchev, who had “an intuitive grasp of game theory” – an example of increasing rationality in history, Pinker believes. But a disastrous escalation in the crisis may in fact have been prevented only by a Soviet submariner, Vasili Arkhipov, who refused to obey orders from his captain to launch a nuclear torpedo. Had it not been for the accidental presence of a single courageous human being, a nuclear conflagration could have occurred causing fatalities on a vast scale.

Could this be true? I remember being at Bard College in 1962 when the crisis was going on. Students were very worried about nuclear war while I shrugged the whole thing off, largely a function of the existentialist nihilism I picked up after watching Godard films uncritically. Well, I’m glad that Arkhipov kept us all alive, although I do wonder what really happened. From what I know of the USSR, nuclear gamesmanship was not its calling card. Maybe if J. Posadas were in charge, things would have turned out differently. The Trotskyist genius put it this way: “Nuclear war [equals] revolutionary war. It will damage humanity but it will not – it cannot – destroy the level of consciousness reached by it… Humanity will pass quickly through a nuclear war into a new human society – Socialism.”

Toward the end of his article, Gray appears to cast doubt on the prospect of achieving peace (and justice, one surmises) either through the agency of the modern capitalist state as Pinker believes is possible or any other socio-political changes:

Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible.

This sounds a bit like warmed-over Oswald Spengler, a philosopher of history who argued in “The Decline of the West” that the 20th century was headed toward collapse. In the 1950s he was quite trendy. As a high school student and a hardened anti-Communist, Spengler’s doom-and-gloom resonated with my own weltschmerz. Boy, I’m glad I got over that.

Thirteen years ago Gray wrote a book titled “Straw Dogs” where his Spenglerian bent was allowed to fully blossom. The book derives its title from Sam Peckingpah’s 1971 film that pitted a “civilized” Dustin Huffman going medieval on the British working class guys who had raped his wife.

In a review for the Guardian Terry Eagleton showed him no mercy:

John Gray’s political vision has been steadily darkening. Once a swashbuckling free-marketeer, he has, in his recent studies, become increasingly despondent about the state of the world. With the crankish, unbalanced Straw Dogs, he emerges as a full-blooded apocalyptic nihilist. He has passed from Thatcherite zest to virulent misanthropy.

Not that nihilism is a term he would endorse. His book is so remorselessly, monotonously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope. Nihilism for Gray suggests the world needs to be redeemed from meaninglessness, a claim he regards as meaningless. Instead, we must just accept that progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition. Technology cannot be controlled, and human beings are entirely helpless. Political tyrannies will be the norm for the future, if we have any future at all. It isn’t the best motivation for getting out of bed.

Like all tunnel vision, Gray’s extravagant pessimism is lugubriously amusing. As with his great mentor Arthur Schopenhauer, the gloomiest philosopher who ever lived, it takes a degree of heroic perversity to overlook every apparent flicker of human value. Straw Dogs is based on a keen, crucial insight – the fact that if men and women really did behave like wild animals, their existence would be a lot less bloody and precarious than it is. Indeed, one might go further and claim that ethics are an animal affair – a matter of our fleshy, compassionate bodies, not of some high-minded moral law. In believing itself infinitely superior to its fellow creatures, humanity overreaches itself and risks bringing itself to nothing. What the ancient Greeks knew as hubris is shaping up at this moment to maim the people of Iraq.

If Marx was no Enlightenment thinker, at least he had a vision of how war could be ended, namely through the establishment of communism, a system that through the elimination of the profit motive could set the stage for peaceful relations among different peoples.

Gray does not see things that way. In a survey on “Bourgeois pundits consider Marx” written in September 2011, I gave Gray props for acknowledging that Marx was correct in pointing out “how capitalism destroys its own social base” but like everyone else I considered ruled out an alternative to the capitalist system. For Gray, Marx was wrong in his belief that “a popular revolution would occur and bring a communist system into being that would be more productive and far more humane.”

Actually Marx was right. The problem, however, is that these popular revolutions were strangled in their crib almost universally. The contradiction was one that Marx did not fully anticipate, namely that revolutions would occur in countries where the immiseration was deepest and as such would lack the economic power to fend for themselves.

Gray is definitely on the side of the angel as opposed to Pinker’s specious “better angels of our nature” but like most people philosophically disinclined to consider proletarian revolution is almost incapable of seeing an alternative to the present system. It is up to us—the modern day sans culottes—to fight for such alternative.


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