Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 22, 2014

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors; A World Not Ours

Filed under: Film,Palestine — louisproyect @ 11:01 pm

At this point any young independent filmmaker looking for funding would probably be advised to work with a screenplay that reflected what was fashionable in film festivals. Mumblecore with its deadpan fixation on the petty affairs of bored white middle-class youths is the most marketable genre, with “dark” narratives about sexual obsessions a close runner-up.

Given the market realities, it was extraordinary to see a film like “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” today that opens tomorrow, May 23rd, at the IFC in New York. As is the case with a number of indie films being made today, seed money came from Kickstarter ($35,000) rather than Harvey Weinstein’s piggy bank. What is even more extraordinary was its defiant embrace of humanist values, a throwback to the golden age of film in the late 50s and early 60s when Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray saw fit to make films about society’s underdogs.

“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is about the two days spent in New York’s subways by a mildly autistic 13-year-old named Ricky from the poorer section of Rockaways whose Mexican immigrant mother cleans apartments for a living. The fact that the director and co-writers of the marvelous screenplay attended film school, including the dreaded NYU, indicates that there is hope for independent film.

The film begins just a few days before Hurricane Sandy hit New York, with the most devastating damage to the Rockaways. (I made a 10 minute documentary a few days after the storm ended that you can watch here: https://vimeo.com/53102549.) When Ricky’s older sister fails to escort him home from school, he decides to take off on the subway—destination unknown. Problems at school and at home probably was a factor in his running off but as with the case of most autistic children, motivation is difficult to ascertain.

For those who live in New York or follow news stories there, the plot will obviously resonate with recent events. Last year Avonte Oquendo, an austistic 14-year-old wandered off from a special education school in Queens. His remains turned up in the East River a couple of months later. More recently, another autistic Latino 14-year-old wandered off as well, this time fortunately discovered after three days. But as it turns out director Sam Fleischner got the idea for the film in 2010 when previous such incidents had occurred. One can only conclude that cutbacks in health services have made such “accidents” possible.

The film cuts back and forth from Ricky’s mother trying desperately to find her son with the assistance of a Jamaican shoe-store owner who had grown used to the boy spending time in her store gazing at the sneakers. As is the case with many autistic children apparently, they become fixated on certain objects.

But most of the film consists of slices of life from New York’s subways: break dancers on a subway car with a captive audience (a scene I know only too well), people exchanging small talk on their way to and from work, mothers tending to their young, panhandlers, street preachers—in other words, a world onto itself. Director Sam Fleischner takes this material, which are commonplace to New Yorkers—at least those who take the subways—and transforms them into something quite magical, both threatening and transcendental at the same time. Although I am quite sure the young filmmakers did not have this in mind, I could not help but be reminded of “Black Orpheus”, the 1959 Brazilian film that has its musician lead character wandering through Rio De Janeiro’s slums in the dead of night in search of his beloved Eurydice.

The screenplay was co-written by Rose Lichter-Marck, who earned an MFA from Columbia University 4 years ago, and Micah Bloomberg who graduated from NYU in 2004 with a BFA.

Although the film has the look of something that had been gestating in the creative team’s minds for years, it actually verged on the improvisational, starting with the use of Sam Fleischner’s home in the Rockaways for some scenes. Considering the Hurricane Sandy element, one might conclude that the screenplay included it to ratchet up the dramatic tension. But in fact the intention was originally only to tell a story about a lost autistic child. Just by coincidence the storm hit during filming and Fleischner decided to incorporate scenes of the devastated peninsula at the conclusion.

At the risk of sounding like an establishment film critic, let me say that “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is a stunning achievement. It is artistically accomplished as well as a testament to the social consciousness of young independent filmmakers today who care more about dramatizing the human condition rather than fame and fortune. Let’s hope that the filmmakers do eventually enjoy fame and fortune because they certainly deserve it and this will ensure that they have the clout to open up Harvey Weinstein’s piggy bank rather than relying on Kickstarter next time.

The title of Mahdi Fleifel’s “A World Not Ours”, a powerful documentary opening at the Cinema Village on May 23rd as well, derives from a book with the same title written by PFLP leader Ghassan Kanafani who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1972. We see the book toward the end of the film when its chief subject, a bitter and disillusioned Fateh militant with the nom de guerre Abu Iyad, is deciding which books to keep and which to discard. Kanafani’s makes the cut but much else ends up in a bonfire.

If there is anything good that has come out of the dispossession of the Palestinian people, it is the body of film work—both documentary and narrative—that represent engaged art at its highest level, this film ranking at the apex.

The film opens on an understated note, with director Mahdi Fleifel introducing us to his family through decades old home movies. It turns out that his father was a compulsive Super-8 guy who filmed birthdays, holidays and all the other events such cameras were meant to record. Since the Fleifels were denizens of Ain al-Hilweh, a sprawling refugee camp in Southern Lebanon, some of the footage was also about the living struggle that almost every Palestinian supported passively or actively.

Fleifel refers to David Ben-Gurion’s observation that after the old Palestinians die off, the young ones will forget. “A World Not Ours” is about as good a refutation of that as can be imagined. No matter how demoralized the denizens of Ain al-Hilweh have become, they will never relinquish the dream of regaining their homeland.

As grim as all this sounds, the film is actually a celebration of Palestinian daily life with weddings, celebration of World Cup victories (the camp dwellers adopt foreign teams in the competition, about as close as they come to identifying with a state power), raising pigeons, and hanging out on the street shooting the breeze.

Abu Iyad might seem like an exception to the rule of Palestinian national aspirations since he repeatedly refers to being conned by the likes of Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas. At one point, he states that he wishes the Israelis would come and kill us all since there is no point in going on living. But in a way his nihilistic rage is a sign that the ember of the nationalist dream remains burning since someone who has given up hope entirely would probably not be given to fits of rage.

Mahdi Fleifel left Ain al-Hilweh at a young age and went with his family to Dubai where his father tried to make a living. When that hope failed, the family returned to Ain al-Hilweh for a few years more until they relocated to Denmark. Fleifel made regular trips back to Ain al-Hilweh to reconnect with Abu Iyad, his crusty grandfather who dreams of returning to Palestine, and his uncle Said who has been driven a bit mad by living as a refugee. Said’s brother Jamil was a celebrated fighter whose participation in the resistance to Israel was so celebrated that they made a comic book about him. At the age of 23, he was shot in the throat by an Israeli sniper and finally died after convalescing in a hospital for 16 months.

I urge you to read the interview with Mahdi Fleifel and his co-producer Patrick Campbell on the World Socialist Website (the only thing reliable there are the film articles). Here is an excerpt that should whet your appetite to see this stirring film. David Walsh, who sadly appears to have retired from reviewing films there, conducted the interview. I don’t admire his politics but his film mastery is obvious in everything he writes:

DW: The third personality, and in some ways the most complex, is Abu Iyad, the former Palestinian militant. His situation speaks most directly to some of the present-day difficulties.

MF: He’s very smart, he has a sixth sense. From a very young age, he became involved in intelligence work, they would send him out to sniff out this or tell them about that.

DW: His disillusionment is not simply a personal discouragement, something is at a dead end there. There is a Palestinian elite that wants to get rich. They are envious of the Saudis and others, they want to have their own country so they can exploit the population and make lots of money.

MF: Exactly. When the PLO left Lebanon in ’82, then went to Tunisia, and eventually found themselves settling back in Ramallah, everyone forgot the people in Lebanon. The expatriates, the ones who accumulated a lot of money in exile, doing whatever they did, whether it was in Tunisia or Eastern Europe, or wherever, found their way back and now they’re opening hotels and bars, and sending their kids off to study in the US.

PC: The diaspora became a bargaining chip. With the Oslo agreement in 1993, it became “I’ll give you this for that.” The “right of return”—we were just speaking about the suspended reality of the older generation—is a bargaining chip between the Palestinian elite and the Israelis, or the US, or whoever. That’s part of the reason for Abu Iyad’s disillusionment. He’s essentially been betrayed.

MF: His whole history, his sacrifices have made him feel, “Hang on, I’m genuinely interested in going all the way, and everywhere I look, I see leaders and people chickening out. My god, I’ve given everything for this. I dropped out of school, because I really believe in this, and yet no one is actually doing it. Where do I go from here?” That’s essentially how I see it.…

May 20, 2014

National liberation and Bolshevism reexamined: A view from the borderlands

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

This article jibes with mine on the Riddell-Kellogg exchange.

John Riddell

By Eric Blanc . ( Eric Blanc is an activist and historian based in Oakland, California. ) A view from the Czarist empire’s borderlands obliges us to rethink many long-held assumptions about the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, as well as the development of Marxist approaches to national liberation, peasant struggle, permanent revolution, and the emancipation of women.

The following paper analyzes the socialist debates on the national question up through 1914. I argue that an effective strategy of anti-colonial Marxism was first put forward by the borderland socialists, not the Bolsheviks. Lenin and his comrades lagged behind the non-Russian Marxists on this crucial issue well into the Civil War—and this political weakness helps explain the Bolshevik failure to build roots among dominated peoples.

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Why NYU does the things it does

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

Screen shot 2014-05-20 at 12.50.26 PMYesterday’s NY Times carried a blockbuster report on the mistreatment of the predominantly East Asian construction laborers hired as virtual indentured servants to build the New York University satellite campus in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Although I have grown inured to leftist complaints over the years about the Times, it is reporting like this that makes me uneasy about calling the paper our Pravda, even if the removal of editor Jill Abramson smacks of Kremlin intrigues. These are the lead paragraphs but I urge you to read the entire article that will make your blood boil.

The strike had entered its second day when construction workers at Labor Camp 42 got word that their bosses from the BK Gulf corporation had come to negotiate. Mohammed Amir Waheed Sirkar, an electrician from Bangladesh, scrambled down the stairs to meet them. But when he got to the courtyard, he saw the truth: It wasn’t the bosses who had come. It was the police.

They pounded on doors, breaking some down, and hauled dozens of men to prison. Mr. Sirkar was taken to a Dubai police station, where officers interrogated him. After a while, new officers arrived. That’s when things got rough.

“They beat me up,” he said through an Urdu interpreter, “asking me to confess I was involved in starting the strike.” Others were slapped, kicked, or beaten with shoes, a special indignity in Arab culture.

You can understand (but not forgive) how American garment corporations screw workers in Bangladesh–the same country that supplied many of the NYU indentured servants. Except for an outfit like Benetton, most of those companies have no pretenses about social justice or progressive values. The Abu Dhabi campus is part of NYU’s Global Network, an initiative meant to express a “good” globalization. On the university’s website, the Global Initiative is hyped with allusions to Karl Jaspers and Teilhard de Chardin:

As we begin a new millennium, a Second Axial Period has begun. Though first described by theologians like the Jesuits’ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I believe it also has a secular, progressive dimension (quite separable, for those who prefer, from religiosity) which is useful in understanding what we see unfolding in our time.

Right, a secular, progressive institution that is built on the super-exploitation of the most desperately poor workers in the world. NYU has the brass to describe Abu Dhabi in these terms:

NYU’s early experience at its portal campus in Abu Dhabi provides support for the claim that the global network structure will be attractive to talented cosmopolitans. Abu Dhabi is a crossroad city, containing in microcosm (but in different proportions from New York) a blend of all the world; it is blessed with a visionary government, economic dynamism, and an increasingly tolerant and welcoming society; and, it is both a repository of a great culture and a symbol of that culture’s adaptation to modernity.

Three years ago the Nation Magazine reported on the crackdown on quite moderate critics of the government who only plead for it to clean up its act. This is what happened to them:

On April 8, at 3 am, several police asked Ahmed Mansoor, one of the signatories, a blogger and a member of the Human Rights Watch advisory committee, to come down to “answer some questions about his car.” (Incidentally, this was the same approach that security officials used to take Naji Hamdan, a United States citizen who allegedly was tortured in custody.) Fearing a trap, he refused to come down, but was taken away by a second group of security officers that same afternoon.

Two days later Nasser bin Ghaith, a prominent Emirati economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, was also carted away. His ostensible crime was urging the UAE, on television shows and in panel discussions, to become more transparent, as a means to further economic development. In subsequent days, three other online activists, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, were arrested.

NYU was untroubled by the arrests: “The school itself does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission of operating a world-class university.”

Forget all the bullshit about a Second Axial Period and a benign globalization. NYU is expanding because there is money in it. Back in 2007 a UAE investor named Omar Saif Ghobash promised NYU $50 million if it opened a campus in Abu Dhabi. NYU’s President John Sexton welcomed the opportunity to set up a satellite campus there since the school was discovering that a tsunami of applications from foreign students was symptomatic of emerging markets as the NY Times reported on February 10, 2008:

In a kind of educational gold rush, American universities are competing to set up outposts in countries with limited higher education opportunities. American universities — not to mention Australian and British ones, which also offer instruction in English, the lingua franca of academia — are starting, or expanding, hundreds of programs and partnerships in booming markets like China, India and Singapore.

The demand from overseas is huge. At the University of Washington, the administrator in charge of overseas programs said she received about a proposal a week. “It’s almost like spam,” said the official, Susan Jeffords, whose position as vice provost for global affairs was created just two years ago.

If NYU’s expansion into places like Abu Dhabi is a kind of external colonization, who could be surprised by its ambitions to colonize internally at the expense of its Greenwich Village neighbors. Sexton has been rebuffed—at least for the time being—over his bid to turn beautiful sections of a historic neighborhood into NYU territory.

In January of this year a judge ruled that half of the planned expansion would have to be scrapped, a decision that led opponents of the university to call for its total ban. The City Council had voted 44 to 1 in 2012 in favor of the expansion. Unsurprisingly, the one nay vote came from Charles Barron, a former member of the Black Panther Party, while our current mayor voted in favor along with a bunch of other liberals who feed at the real estate industry’s trough. (A comrade just dropped me a line: And, unsurprisingly, the key vote in favor (from the Councilmember “representing” the affected area) came from Margaret Chin, a former member of the Communist Workers Party.

While by no means as exploited as the construction workers in Abu Dhabi, NYU’s graduate student part-time instructors felt that they had no other recourse than starting a trade union to protect their interests. In what has become routine at this point, the university filed a brief that opposed the organizing drive in words that smack of utter hypocrisy: “Petitioners [ie, the grad students] urge a cynical view, that the university is just another big business, that graduate students are no more than wage earners, and that using graduate student teachers and researchers is merely a cost-saving measure.” Well, how dare they claim that the university is just another big business? What are they? A bunch of commies?

To help you decide whether NYU was a big business or not, consider who it picked to lead the anti-union drive, its Executive Vice President Jacob Lew who got a $685,000 exit bonus to become Obama’s Treasury Secretary. By comparison, a teaching assistant at NYU could expect $1,327 per month.

A cursory glance at the officers serving on the NYU board of trustees will help you understand why it does the things it does.

William R. Berkley:

The founder and CEO of WR Berkley Corporation, an insurance company with over $5 billion in revenue. In 2006 this mutt got permission from the Greenwich, Connecticut town board to put an antique carousel in his 58 acre backward. Let me repeat that with emphasis: a 58-acre back yard. Do you know what that amounts to? That’s the same as fucking 15 blocks in New York City. Why would someone like William R. Berkley care about some Bangladeshi construction worker? Berkley paid $15,000 to the wife of former governor John Rowland in Connecticut for a speech she gave to his company bigwigs in 2003. Do you think making such a huge fee had anything to do with the business dealings his insurance company had with the state, you cynic you? Who knows? I can only tell you this. Not long after this incident, John Rowland was found guilty of taking bribes and sentenced to fourteen months.

Lawrence D. Fink:

The founder and CEO of Black Rock, a privately owned investment company that is considered the most powerful money management firm in the world. Fink belongs to Kappa Beta Phi, a secretive private club made up of plutocrats. In 2012 a reporter from New York Magazine crashed their yearly gala and witnessed the acts performed by new inductees, who were required to wear leotards and gold-sequined skirts. One of them told “jokes” like this:

Paul Queally, a private-equity executive with Welsh, Carson, Anderson, & Stowe, told off-color jokes to Ted Virtue, another private-equity bigwig with MidOcean Partners. The jokes ranged from unfunny and sexist (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and a catfish?” A: “One has whiskers and stinks, and the other is a fish”) to unfunny and homophobic (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Barney Frank and a Fenway Frank?” A: “Barney Frank comes in different-size buns”).

I imagine that nearly all the members of Kappa Beta Phi sit on the board of places like NYU.

Kenneth G. Langone:

The founder of Home Depot, who was put on trial with Richard Grasso, the former head of the NY Stock Exchange for arranging a $139.5 million parachute for Grasso. The judge declared a mistrial while D.A. Elliot Spitzer ended up disgraced for using prostitutes. Not surprisingly, Langone formed a group called “Republicans for Cuomo”. Seeing the NY state’s governor tilt toward the plutocrats, you can say that Langone’s efforts were amply rewarded just as Berkley’s were in Connecticut. Two months ago Politico interviewed Langone. When the question of the one-percent came up, the billionaire responded: ““[I]f you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Larry Silverstein:

A real estate developer best known for owning the World Trade Center. While the 911 Truthers obsess over his alleged conspiracy to bring down the towers with the aid of Mossad, his most likely crime is helping to shape NYU’s expansionary onslaught.

Leonard Wilf:

Like Silverstein, this guy is a real estate developer and like most members of this tribe something of a crook. Last year he and his cousin Zigmund, who owns the Minneapolis Vikings football team, had to pay $84.5 million in damages over chiseling their business partners in a New Jersey apartment complex. The judge ruled that ruled the Wilfs committed fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty by such practices as charging the partnership unauthorized management fees and interest payments. Perfect. Just the sort of person who belongs on a university board of trustees and one who can be relied upon to protect the rights of Bangladeshi workers.

Martin Lipton:

I have save the worst for the last. Lipton is the chairman of the board and a first class scumbag. He is the founder of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a law firm serving the needs of the one percent corporate bigwigs. Last year NYU professors issued an open letter calling for Lipton’s resignation, mostly prompted by the university’s buying vacation homes and NY apartments for the top brass. It stated:

The same day that you notified the faculty of your report, you also re-affirmed the Board’s embrace of Pres. Sexton in a letter to the New York Times, about the recent scandal over NYU’s “vacation homes program.” Casting all those lavish gifts to NYU’s top bureaucrats as a way of “building a community of outstanding scholars,” you used “N.Y.U.’s loan programs” to make yet another statement of trustee support: “We are wholly confident in N.Y.U.’s president, John Sexton, whose own innovative leadership has done so much at the law school and the university to maintain the university’s upward trajectory.

In many ways, Lipton is really the boss of NYU who uses Sexton as a puppet for his long-range strategies. A NY Times article from April 10, 2014 revealed the close relationship between the two men. It was titled perfectly: “The Power Broker of NYU” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/education/edlife/the-power-broker-of-nyu.html). Since the article is behind a paywall and since it really sums up why NYU does the things it does, I will reproduce it here:

Martin Lipton, chairman of the board of New York University, recently took a trustee to lunch at San Pietro, a pricey Manhattan restaurant frequented by the city’s C.E.O.s. Over a meal that lasted several hours, they discussed Mr. Lipton’s plans to step down next year, after 16 years at the helm. “Marty wants his own replacement there a year in advance,” recalled Evan R. Chesler, chairman of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a leading New York law firm. The reason, he said: “The new chairman would be responsible for the process that selects the president who will replace John Sexton.”

It is Mr. Lipton, though, who will appoint the group of trustees, students and faculty members who will search for the next president of N.Y.U.; he also sits on the committee to select his own replacement as head of the board he created.

More than a decade ago, Mr. Lipton handpicked Dr. Sexton without any systematic search process — and for years the board could congratulate itself on its choice. During Dr. Sexton’s tenure, admission applications have risen 45 percent, and N.Y.U. has attracted top-level professors and administrators.

But under a cloud of faculty unrest, Dr. Sexton announced in August that he would step down at the end of his term, in 2016. In the past two years, faculty anger at Dr. Sexton and the board has marred the university’s increasingly high profile. Much as corporate boards came under public scrutiny in the 1980s, university boards are under pressure from faculty as they grapple with the same questions: Do they look too much like businesses and less like places of learning and to what extent should they globalize? But at N.Y.U., tensions have been particularly visible.

Dr. Sexton has been widely criticized for an aggressive expansion program in Greenwich Village and for erecting campuses in parts of the world with oppressive governments. Faculty members, claiming to be underpaid and excluded from decision making, have struck out at what they view as lavish pay and perks for a few star employees: loans for vacation homes; executive exit bonuses of $1.23 million and near $700,000; a $1.5 million compensation package for the president plus a $2.5 million “length of service” bonus due next year, making Dr. Sexton among the highest paid college presidents in the country.

While Dr. Sexton has taken the heat — five schools passed votes of no confidence last year — the person who has largely escaped attention is Mr. Lipton, who has wielded enormous power at N.Y.U. His tenure provides insight into just how important a chairman can be in shaping a university’s agenda, given that the board’s mandate includes choosing a president, approving salaries for top administrators and overseeing expansion.

At N.Y.U., where Mr. Lipton has headed the highly influential compensation committee since 1998, the board’s approval of generous compensation packages and intense loyalty to management parallel Mr. Lipton’s views in the corporate world.

Even as he retires as chairman, N.Y.U. will continue to bear his imprint. Mr. Lipton, who will remain on the board, is also on the committee that nominates new trustees, and has had a major role in choosing a majority of the 65 members (and two honorary members). That board is 1.7 times as large as the average private research-university board, according to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and many of its members are, like Mr. Lipton, scrappy self-made entrepreneurs.

Along with a clutch of other N.Y.U. law school graduates, Mr. Lipton formed Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in 1965. The upstart firm lacked the pedigree of white-shoe rivals. Nevertheless, in the ensuing decades, it muscled its way into the top ranks by representing corporations in some of the business world’s biggest takeover battles. Mr. Lipton is best known for creating the “poison pill defense,” a strategy to protect existing management by making the company’s stock less attractive to a hostile bidder.

Mr. Lipton sat for an interview in a small conference room in his unpretentious suite of offices at the firm’s West 52nd Street headquarters. A portly 82-year-old with disappearing curly white hair, he talked passionately about his commitment to the university.

Mr. Lipton joined the law school board in 1972, and four years later was named a trustee of the university, working, he said, to help “bring N.Y.U. back from the brink of insolvency and help create a modern global research university.” In 1998, he took over the board from Lawrence A. Tisch, who he recalls telling the trustees: “I am stepping down and proposing Marty as my successor before Marty gets too old to succeed me.”

Over the past dozen years, Mr. Lipton has been deeply immersed in Dr. Sexton’s agenda for growth, making visits to N.Y.U.’s new Shanghai campus and helping establish its Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates. He seemed as outraged by the attacks on Dr. Sexton as he might be over efforts to remove a corporate chief. (Dr. Sexton declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“You would think the faculty would recognize the fabulous accomplishments he has made,” Mr. Lipton said. “They thought that by having a vote of no confidence, they would panic the trustees,” he said, just as a vote of no confidence led to Lawrence Summers’s dismissal as president of Harvard.

Mr. Lipton’s indignation does not surprise Jonathan R. Macey, a professor of corporate law at Yale and author of “Corporate Governance: Promises Kept, Promises Broken.” “He has built a reputation for work that is firmly of the view that incumbent management should be protected and that the incumbent board of directors is the only entity whose opinion matters in corporate governance,” Professor Macey said.

“In effect, John Sexton is the C.E.O. of N.Y.U.,” he added. “So if you are facing a revolt of the faculty you can’t be in a better position than John Sexton to ward off no-confidence votes.”

To Mr. Lipton, N.Y.U.’s approach to compensation is entirely logical at a university in one of the world’s most expensive cities. “You have to recognize that N.Y.U. is the largest private university in the country,” he said, “and I don’t think we pay outside the normal rate for similar institutions. You can best say that the policy of the university is to maintain a faculty of excellence and do what is necessary to attract distinguished people to the faculty.”

He added: “It is necessary and good for the institutions, just as it is good for corporate giants.”

Mr. Lipton practices what he preaches. Partners at Wachtell Lipton are routinely the highest paid in the country, according to The American Lawyer magazine. In 2012, they earned an average of $4.95 million.

His board, too, includes hugely wealthy individuals, some of whose own pay has attracted headlines. Barry Diller, a U.C.L.A. dropout and Wachtell Lipton client, was in one year the highest paid executive in the country, with compensation of $295 million. Several board members say they have virtually never seen him at meetings. “But he is a contributor and is always available to me for advice,” Mr. Lipton said.

Other boldface names include Lisa Silverstein, daughter of the real estate developer Larry A. Silverstein, a longtime Wachtell Lipton client. The hedge fund moguls John Paulson and Michael H. Steinhardt are also trustees, as are Daniel R. Tisch, William C. Rudin and Constance J. Milstein, all members of powerful New York clans. Kenneth G. Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot, is on the board. Mr. Langone donated $200 million to the medical center, which was renamed in his honor. (He was recently in hot water himself for sending mass emails to medical school staff, soliciting donations to politicians who had helped the center after Hurricane Sandy.)

The roster includes at least one eyebrow-raising trustee, Leonard A. Wilf. In September, Mr. Wilf and two cousins were ordered to pay $84.5 million to former business partners after a New Jersey judge ruled they had committed fraud, breach of contract and violated civil racketeering laws in a 1980s real estate case. An appeal has been filed. Mr. Lipton declined to comment but William Josephson, a lawyer who specializes in nonprofit institutions, said this: “I cannot recall an iconic American university having a board member with such a history.”

One might argue that a board so loaded with money moguls has lost touch.

In September, a group of faculty activists sent out a “dear colleague” letter complaining that compensation to a select few was excessive relative to what most academic staff earned. Compensation to 25 top administrators rose 20.4 percent from 2010 to 2012. They noted that the average salary increase to faculty was just 2.5 percent at the university and 3 percent at the medical school. The administration’s counterattack: many of the high earners are with the medical school, which operates separately from the university and with a different salary structure.

Board members say compensation issues are carefully examined. “The idea of housing has been our greatest difficulty, and there have been substantial discussions about it,” said William R. Berkley, chairman of an insurance holding company and member of the compensation committees at both N.Y.U. and the medical school. “It is complicated because young, terrific people coming to N.Y.U. have families who have to live in New York, and it is not an ordinary environment.”

In some cases, the university has bought homes for stars, including a $6.5 million apartment for the head of its medical center. N.Y.U.’s newest celebrity hire, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whom it lured away from Princeton, is getting university-owned housing — paying rent, according to the N.Y.U. spokesman John Beckman, that is “proportional” to what other faculty members pay in university-owned residences.

To end the “disruption,” as Mr. Lipton refers to the tension gripping N.Y.U. last summer, he announced that the board would no longer make loans for vacation homes. The university has never divulged how many got those loans, though Mr. Berkley said it was fewer than 10 people. Mr. Lipton said he would continue to pay top talent what he views as necessary and to find ways to sweeten the pot.

If there is controversy over how N.Y.U. spends its money, there can be no criticism of how effective the board has been at bringing it in. Since Mr. Lipton took over, it has raised $5.97 billion.

Given the wealth on the board and the amount it has raised, some observers call it a “money board.” Mr. Lipton laughed and said: “Bring us more money.”

While Mr. Lipton has successfully solicited gifts from board members — Shelby White has given $200 million, Helen L. Kimmel $150 million — there is a difference of opinion as to whether he has solicited their viewpoints as well. Mr. Berkley said, “Marty was always open to a dialogue about issues.” Mr. Chesler concurs. But several other board members, who would not speak for attribution, said that Mr. Lipton ran the board with an iron hand. “It is Marty’s board and he controls it,” said one. Another added: “I would go so far as to say that the board has been a near rubber stamp board. And since they are not rubber stamp types, I scratch my head as to why. I think there is a long tradition of the board being quiescent with a management that it feels good about.”

Perhaps confidence in Dr. Sexton left the board blindsided to the degree of unhappiness among faculty. Faculty members have called on Mr. Lipton to resign, citing governance without faculty inclusion and failure to improve the conversation. They also object to how Mr. Lipton embraced Dr. Sexton. He sent out emails from the board supporting the president after the faculty had expressed concerns in no-confidence votes. “That is not listening,” said Robert Cohen, a professor of history and social studies at N.Y.U. “That is broadcasting.”

Mr. Berkley conceded: “John antagonized a lot of people trying to move a large institution into the 21st century. But we believed it was more of a fringe group than it ended up being. The straw that broke the camel’s back was 2031” — the controversial expansion plan, named for N.Y.U.’s 200th birthday. “It was a great idea that was not put forward in a way people understood,” he said.

Over the past several years N.Y.U. faculty members have joined with Greenwich Village preservation groups, celebrities and elected officials to fight the “Sexton plan” — to add roughly two million square feet of space in the Village and six million over all. While Mr. Lipton and others say faculty members were consulted about the expansion, Mark Crispin Miller, who heads N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, counters that they were not consulted during the planning process.

In the latest development, in January, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled that the university must get state approval for roughly half its plan because it involves removing parkland — a decision that will, it appears, at least slow the timetable. Both sides have appealed the decision. At a news conference shortly after the ruling, Mr. Miller urged Dr. Sexton’s team to “rethink its policy” and “mend fences with its neighborhood and also with its professional body.”

The faculty group continues to fight. To help finance its agenda, it recently held an auction of donations, like a script reading by the author Peter Gethers and an acting lesson with Philip Seymour Hoffman (since Mr. Hoffman’s death, Liev Schreiber has assumed the pledge).

As Mr. Lipton attempts to seal his legacy, the board is scrambling to look more responsive to the issues that have roiled the campus and grabbed headlines. It will involve faculty and students in the search for a new president, and it has announced a drive to raise $1 billion for scholarships.

N.Y.U.’s cost of attendance is about $64,000, and it ranks among the country’s most expensive colleges and universities. On the federal Department of Education’s list of nonprofit private institutions with the highest net price — cost of attendance minus financial aid — only the New School and seven art and music academies cost more than N.Y.U. Asked about students’ ability to afford his university, Mr. Lipton responded: “We do everything we can to provide financial assistance to our students. Our students are not begging in the streets.”

As for his retirement as chairman, Mr. Lipton said, somewhat facetiously: “I am getting too old and have served too long.” Mr. Chesler and Mr. Berkley are leading candidates to replace him.

He seems certain the global mission will not change, in part because his board has been so enthusiastic. “The critics,” he said, “are shortsighted.”

Richard Chait, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and consultant to nonprofit institutions, has been watching the events at N.Y.U. unfold over the last year and sums it up this way: “If you believe youpainted the Mona Lisa, you don’t want someone to put a mustache on it.”

“At the same time,” he said, “part of what the faculty is saying is: This has been a two-man show; that is not how you run a university.”


May 19, 2014

A response to the Kellogg-Riddell exchange on the early Comintern

Filed under: Comintern,Germany,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

John Riddell

Paul Kellogg

I strongly recommend that you read two important contributions to understanding the role of the early Comintern. The first is an article by Paul Kellogg titled “Substitutionism versus Self‐emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo‐Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921” that can be downloaded from here. I was particularly interested to read this since I had learned from Paul that it was in the works back in April 2013 at the HM Conference. He related a positively hair-raising narrative of the Red Army invading Poland to extend the Bolshevik revolution at the point of a bayonet led by a former Czarist officer who was a raving anti-Semite. This was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a very capable military man who was among those to face a firing squad opon Stalin’s orders on the eve of WWII.

In the interests of transparency, I must confess a strong identification with Paul Kellogg’s analysis, especially on the importance of Comintern’s role in the German disaster of the early 1920s. He has written a defense of Paul Levi who opposed the bumbling diktats of the Kremlin that relies on the same material I found useful—Pierre Broue’s history of the ill-fated German revolution as well as Werner T. Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution; The Communist Bid For Power In Germany, 1921 1923”. Based on my review of the German events, I came to the conclusion that the Comintern imposed a “Zinovievist” party-building model on the Comintern that led to both Stalinists and Trotskyists turning away from what was truly revolutionary about Lenin’s party—its ability to draw revolutionary-minded workers into struggle without bureaucratic or sectarian limitations. The “Zinovievist” model put a premium on “democratic centralism” and discipline for good reasons. After the German disaster, it became necessary to circle the wagons and protect the leadership in Moscow from the responsibility of defending an indefensible policy. Many years later, I saw the same tendencies at work in the American SWP, a group whose “turn toward industry” was just as disastrous but fortunately limited to a marginal sect on the American left rather than the working class in its millions.

Paul Kellogg’s article was a review of John Riddell’s Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, a book published by Haymarket. Since I think this is a book that belongs on everybody’s bookshelf, it is too bad that the publisher has put a $55 price tag on it. Years ago, when Riddell was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Canada, Pathfinder Press in the USA—the publishing arm of the SWP—came out with a number of books by Riddell on the Comintern. I should add that I have a somewhat different take on where things like the Comintern proceedings belong. They should be on the Marxist Internet Archives along with the rest of the core literature of our movement and not for sale by small propaganda groups or outfits like Lawrence-Wishart. If Haymarket had made such a decision, their political capital would have increased immensely even if their bottom line had decreased. Forget about Pathfinder—they sicced their corporate lawyers on MIA some years ago when the comrades put some of their copyrighted material on the Net.

Riddell has come a long way since his original work on the Comintern for Pathfinder when he (and I) saw its early history after the fashion of Christian fundamentalist understanding of the Garden of Eden myth. Before the snake tempted Eve, there was perfect goodness—afterwards perfect evil so much so that God flooded the Earth and started over. In our theology, it was Stalin rather than the snake that led to perdition.

While only small Trotskyist sects still hold to this view, most serious scholars and activists have a more nuanced view of the early Comintern. A careful study of the pre-Stalin years will reveal disasters of biblical proportions to extend the analogy a bit. There is no disagreement between Riddell and Kellogg on this, only on what Riddell describes as Lenin and his comrades coming to their senses.

Riddell reminds his readers that even if the Comintern’s legacy is mixed, it made many decisions that are relevant to today’s world especially since they might be aimed at those who pursue ultraleft and sectarian positions at odds with its program. For example, Riddell views the position on bourgeois revolutionary struggles as antithetical to the typical ultraleft dismissal of the Bolivarian revolution, including one made by Duncan Hallas, a leader of the British SWP (now deceased:

The Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920 agreed, on Lenin’s proposal, to support “bourgeois liberation movements” in colonial and semi-colonial countries provided they are “genuinely revolutionary.” (The term “bourgeois” referred here not to class composition but chiefly to a program that did not go beyond the limits of a bourgeois [capitalist] order.) Hallas dismisses this position on the grounds that a “bourgeois liberation movement” necessarily fears arousing the masses and is therefore not genuinely revolutionary (p. 50–51).

The objection is not small, given the role of national liberation in revolutionary struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium, as for example in Venezuela. Many Marxist currents share Hallas’s viewpoint, and their aversion to the Comintern’s position on nationalism has a major impact on practical policy.

I would only add that even if Lenin were resurrected today in a Marxist version of Jesus showing up on Easter, it would make no difference to today’s sectarians whose hatred of Venezuela is so visceral that they are beyond hope. At certain point, data and logic make no difference to dead-end sectarians. Just read the Militant newspaper on Venezuela—a group that detested Hugo Chavez while at the same time hailing the Obiang kleptocracy in Equatorial Guinea.

But beyond this there is an additional problem. Even when Comintern resolutions said the right thing, there were times when the words clashed with the action. I am reminded of this now that I am immersed in Ukrainian history of the period demarcated by Riddell’s book, when relationships between the Kremlin were as troubled as the intervention into Germany. Indeed, I would include the policies on the Ukraine as ranking with those in German and Poland in terms of undermining the goal of world revolution as even those responsible for the policies were deeply committed to achieving them.

You would assume, for example, that Lenin was totally for the self-determination of Ukraine when he wrote these words on December 28, 1919:

The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.

Yet just three months later Lenin had this to say about the Borotba Party that the Ukrainians had democratically elected:

When we said in the Central Committee that the maximum concessions should be made to the Borotbists, we were laughed at and told that we were not following a straight line. But you can fight in a straight line when the enemy’s line is straight. But when the enemy moves in zigzags, and not in a straight line, we have to follow him and catch him at every turn. We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy. In this way we showed that we are in no way intolerant. And that these concessions were made quite rightly is shown by the fact that all the best elements among the Borotbists have now joined our Party.

In other words, Lenin saw the bloc with the Borotbists as a necessary evil. As long as Denikin was threatening the security of the USSR and using the Ukraine as a launching pad for armed forays, there would be a need for keeping the Ukrainians on your side. But this was just a maneuver. The Borotbists were really an enemy, a group that Lenin had compared to the Right SR’s on occasion, and not genuine allies. But the statement that really hits home is this: We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy.

How does this square with the statement of the Comintern that bourgeois liberation movements in colonial or semi-colonial countries should be supported? Apparently, there is an exception clause for those countries that were in the Czarist Empire. The movements had to pass a “communist” litmus test.

It didn’t matter that the Borotbists held the Comintern in high esteem or that they favored a government based on workers and peasant’s councils. They were still not sufficiently “communist”. In early 1920 they applied for membership in the Comintern, not the sort of act one would associate with a party that was similar to the Right SR’s. The Comintern turned down their application as conveyed in a letter found in Ivan Maistrenko’s “Borot’bism: A chapter in the history of the Ukrainian Revolution”. They were told that their agitation against the Red Army was counter-revolutionary, even if the Red Army was backing a Bolshevik like Christian Rakovsky who said that the Ukrainian nation did not exist.

They were also told that they had conducted agitation against Russians living in the Ukraine, an act that was “reminiscent of the darker activities of the Second International”. What brass to tell this to the Ukrainians when Soviet officials were asking Ukrainian peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?” Such incidents were reported in Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski’s article reproduced here. (“Petliurists” refers to Petliura, a former head of state in the Ukraine far to the right of the Borotbists but arguably within the domain of the “bourgeois” liberation movements endorsed by the Comintern.)

Finally, I want to point out that the “German March Action of 1921” referred to in Paul Kellogg’s title was not the end of Soviet mistakes. Even after the Comintern had adopted the United Front originally proposed by Paul Levi, there was another blunder of biblical proportions as I indicated in my article “The Comintern and German Communism”.

The decision to launch a revolution in Germany in the fall of 1923 was made in Moscow, not in Germany. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

The Bolshevik leaders were monitoring the situation carefully. Lenin at this point was bed-ridden with a stroke and virtually incommunicado. Any decisions that were to be made about an “intervention” in Germany would rest on Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky who were the key leaders in Lenin’s absence.

At a Politburo meeting on August 23, 1923 Germany’s prospects were discussed. Trotsky was optimistic about victory and predicted that a showdown would occur in a matter of weeks. Zinvoiev was also optimistic, but was reluctant to commit to a timetable. Only Stalin voiced skepticism about an immanent uprising. A subcommittee was established to supervise the German revolution. Radek, who had only a year earlier made a batty proposal for an alliance with the ultraright, became the head of this group.

The German revolution became the dominant theme of Russian politics from that moment on. Workers agreed to a wage freeze in order to help subsidize the German uprising. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. Revolutionary slogans were coined, like “German Steam Hammer and Soviet Bread will Conquer the World!”

There was only slight problem. The head of the German Communist Party was simply not up to the task of leading a revolution and was the first to admit it. This cautious, phlegmatic functionary was a former trade union official and bore all the characteristics of this breed. He had been implicated in the failed ultraleft uprising of 1921 and was not eager to go out on a limb again.

When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation.

It was Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, who was most self-deluded by the strength of the German Communist Party. He wrote in October 1923, “in the cities the workers are definitely numerically superior and” and “the forthcoming German revolution will be a proletarian class revolution. The 22 million German workers who make up its army represent the cornerstone of the international proletariat.” What Zinoviev didn’t take into account was that while the working class may be united socially and economically, it was not necessarily united politically. This turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. Brandler was so swept up by the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik leaders that he joined with them in pumping up the numbers. In the end he went so far as to claim that the Communists could count on the active support of 50,000 to 60,000 proletarians in Saxony.

The Bolshevik leaders finally wore Brandler down and he agreed to their plans, which involved the following:

1) The Communists would join Zeigner’s government in Saxony as coalition partners and arm the workers. The state of Saxony would then provide a base for a military and political offensive in the rest of Germany.

2) A date would be set for the seizure of power. Trotsky was the main advocate of setting a date. Over the objections of Brandler, Trotsky insisted that the date be November 9th. This was meant to coincide closely with the Bolshevik revolution of November 7th, 1917. Trotsky said, “Let us take our own October Revolution as an example…From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet…our party was faced with the question–not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as it is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene…” Trotsky simply could not perceive that Russian revolutionaries setting a date for themselves is much different than setting a date for revolutionaries in another country. This distinction would have been lost on Trotsky who had gotten in the habit of laying down tactics for other Communist Parties in his capacity as Comintern official. He had the audacity to tell the French Communist Party, for example, what should go on the front page of their newspaper L’Humanite.

The next few weeks witnessed escalating confrontations between the left-wing government in Saxony and the German capitalist class. The Communist newspaper “Red Flag” printed daily calls for arming the workers and preparing for an offensive against the bourgeoisie. A telegram from Zinoviev arrived on September 31 who confirmed that the date for seizure of power would come in the first half of November. The problem, however, is that an enormous gap existed between the feverish proclamations of their newspaper, Zinoviev’s green light and the actual preparations for an armed offensive. In fact, the problem was that very little attention was paid to technical and organizational details up to this point. While the Comintern had stressed the need for an underground apparatus, there was little evidence that the German party had paid any attention to such matters. The dichotomy between ultraleft braggadocio and painstaking preparation proved to be the party’s undoing.

Specifically, their military plan required a 3 to 1 numerical superiority over the army and police. However, the Communists could not rely on such numbers. There were 250, 000 well-trained cops and soldiers while the Communist Party membership was only about 300,000, including many people either too young or too old to be effective fighters.

The bigger problem turned out to be political, however. The German Communist Party had simply overestimated its ability to command the allegiance of the rest of the working class and its parties. While this mass party had some claim to be the “vanguard” of the German working class as compared to the Maoist and Trotskyist sects of today, it still had not won over the masses completely as the Bolsheviks of 1917 had.

The German central government had reacted to the insurrectionary developments in Saxony as one would expect. They assembled a fighting force under the command of General Muller in order to restore order. As soon as the Communists heard about this white guard’s pending attack, they assembled a conference of left-wing and labor leaders in Chemnitz, Saxony on October 21 to put together a united defense against the counter-revolution.

Aside from 66 Communist delegates, there were 140 delegates from factory councils, 122 representatives of labor unions, 79 delegates from control commissions, 15 delegates from action committees, 16 from unemployed committees and 7 from the Socialist Party. Brandler took the floor and called for a general strike. His call was met by stony silence. What he had not counted on was the hostility of the rest of the workers movement. As much as they feared the consequences of General Muller’s offensive, they were not ready to follow the lead of a sectarian Communist Party that had unilaterally made decisions for the mass movement.

On the day of the conference, the German army marched into Saxony and the Communist Party was forced to call of its revolution. Or, to be more accurate, the Communist Party was forced to call off the revolution of Zinoviev, Radek, Stalin and Trotsky.

UKRAINE: Excuse Me Mister: How Far Is It From Simferopol To Grozny?

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 4:24 pm

There is an interesting split in perception, on the “Left,” when it comes to imperialism. It seems fair to say we all agree on the need to oppose US imperialism. However, as soon as the picture is complemented by a second state with imperial aspirations, many—especially Western—“leftists” equivocate, and seem willing to choose the perceived lesser of two evils. This dualistic approach has its roots in the Cold War; it is the useless remnant of a period when to be pro-Soviet might have implied being anti-capitalist.It was wrong then, it is wrong now, and it is time to get rid of it.The latest example of this difficulty in renouncing the false choice between evils has come with the crisis in Ukraine. Commentators around the world are drumming up evidence to support the hype that a new Cold War is at hand. Publicly, tensions between the US and Russia appear to be rising; however behind the curtain nothing is all that new. The US, the EU and NATO have always been trying to push their scope of influence eastwards; Russia has never been willing to cede political influence, control over pipelines, or access to resources in its former Soviet territories.More importantly, however, and refuting the vision of a new Cold War at our doorstep, is the fact that the US has been handing out “aid” to Russia since 1992, attached to conditions demanding deregulation imposed by the victory march of Bretton Woods (and later Troika) institutions.We are used to hypocritical US foreign policy; its stance towards Russia serves just as another example. We keep hearing calls out of the White House urging Russia to respect dissent and the opposition. Along with the US’s own draconian attitude toward dissent and opposition, this continuous backdoor support of Putinʼs regime reduces such calls to so much hot air.⁵ Nevertheless, Obama and his Western colleagues stay plenty busy reaffirming themselves with ridiculous sanctions which have no impact whatsoever on Putinʼs or his pet oligarchs’ greed.⁶At any rate, the previously mentioned US vs. Russia narrative continues to fill the airwaves, and of course the US is not the only one making noise. From an anti-authoritarian standpoint, it is frustrating as well as saddening to see the Kremlin’s propaganda make its merry way around the world wide web. Indeed, Russian mainstream media has much in common with that of the US and EU—each points the finger at the “other side.” “Leftists” and anarchists should, however, be able to see through this game and reject both claims. The “West” does not have a monopoly on imperialism, and it is not by opposing only Western imperialism that we show our solidarity with ethnic minorities, marginalized groups, radical Left opposition or the working class—all of whom will be the main victims of continued aggression.In fact, to do so has dire human and political consequences; it enables the continued oppression and killing of ethnic minorities and weakens those few voices that do manage to get heard from within the opposition movements in Russia and Ukraine. Further, this reckless attitude results in a direct conflict among “leftists.” Many are unwilling to condemn Russian aggression for what it is, fearing this would imply support for their own imperialists, similar to those “leftists” that tried to defend first Qaddafi, later Assad, and now Putin.⁷ ⁸ Two wrongs don’t make a right.

via UKRAINE: Excuse Me Mister: How Far Is It From Simferopol To Grozny?.

May 17, 2014

Dear Professor Greg Albo

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:47 pm

Greg Albo

Professor Albo,

I am wondering about your judgement lately. I respect your work on Socialist Register, a journal that is indispensable for young academics on the left trying to get tenured. After all, publish or perish is tough enough in its own right but when you want to get an article on the world capitalist crisis added as a notch on your CV, there’s not that many academic journals that you can submit to. Thank goodness for SR, Science and Society, and HM. Where would the left academy be without them?

I did start worrying a bit when you published Andrew Murray’s meretricious defense of the Labour Party against attempts to build something to its left. In my view, Murray is pure poison. Not only is he the British equivalent of all those wretches who stumped for Obama; he is also an old-school “tankie” who writes propaganda for Putin and Bashar al-Assad, the kind of person who belongs in the 10th circle of hell if Dante had thought of one.

In this piece of garbage, Murray smears Richard Seymour as being soft on US imperialism: http://21centurymanifesto.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/andrew-murray-on-the-ukraine-and-attacks-on-the-stop-the-war-coalition/. I am in no position of course to advise the brilliant editorial board of SR who to align with, but most young people moving against capitalism on the streets and in the academy would find Seymour’s views more amenable than Murray’s, a man who counted the USSR as “successful” in promoting “the cultural, linguistic and educational development of each ethnic group”. This sort of garbage, of course, is what made Stalinism seem so cynical and degraded to anybody outside its ranks.

Now, getting to the point, I noticed that you signed an open letter defending the anti-Maidan movement in Ukraine that was initiated by the Workers Revolutionary Party in Greece, a bizarre sect led by one Savas Matsas. I thought it was significant that among the signatories, there was only one person from Ukraine but nine from Russia. Surely this is a symptom of what Lenin called Great Russian chauvinism whatever the intention of the sectarians who drafted the letter.

Among the florid formulations in the letter is this:

The Odessa pogrom is the last warning not only for the tragedy that falls upon the entire people of Ukraine, both in the Eastern and the Western part of the country, but furthermore, for a more vast and terrible tragedy involving the entire region, Europe and the world. It is reminiscent of the Kristallnacht, the “Crystal Night” that preceded in Nazi Germany the genocide of the Jewish people of Europe.

Really? Don’t you realize how idiotic this sounds? To start with, official Jewry in Ukraine is far more worried about Russia than the Right Sector. Aren’t you aware that Russian TV keeps referring to Tymoshenko’s Jewish ethnicity? Aren’t you aware that the anti-Maidan movement has been quite open about its hatred of Jews? Here’s what one observer noted:

On one particular occasion, an activist speaking at an Anti-Maidan meeting declared: ‘Yes, a nationalist coup has taken place in the state, but we need to understand what nation is behind it. Let’s look at those who have come to power. Tymoshenko-Kapitelman, Tyahnybok-Frontman, Yatsenyuk – a Jew. This is a Zionist coup, all [go] to Kyiv!’ The crowd started to yell ‘Kikes!’ At the same time, this Anti-Maidan meeting was presented as ‘anti-fascist.’ This is hardly a paradox: the anti-Semitic narrative of some elements of Anti-Maidan implies that Jews are ‘fascists’, so anti-Semitism is interpreted as anti-fascism. Numerous demotivational posters associating the Jews with Ukrainian ultranationalists are flooding the web-sites of Anti-Maidan activists.

Now you are a big boy, a tenured professor with probably 113 articles in refereed journals to your name. But surely you should understand that you made a horse’s ass out of yourself by signing this letter and dragging SR’s good name into the mud.


Louis Proyect

Socialists campaign for Kyiv City Council

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 12:37 pm

A near impossible objective stands before Kyiv city council: to improve the old machinery of government. We, the candidates for office from the Assembly for Social Revolution, demand a new system. Above all “social lustration” is needed – the representation of ordinary citizens instead of the parasitic business interests. The citizens should delegate authority to their government. Funds should be directed to common needs –education, health care and housing. We are in favour of limiting private egotism: more parks instead of supermarkets, accessible public transport instead of unsuitable private taxi buses. Communal property and institutions maintained by public funds will bring benefits to all if corruption is rooted out from them. We don’t make up promises, but say outright by what costs it is possible to improve our life.The steps we have outlined below can save our society from further degradation and impoverishment. Together with the independent unions we are ready to defend your rights to jobs, which is especially important in this time of crisis. Only self-managed socialism – the participation of the people in their own governing and placing the economy under the control of the people – is capable of really improving the standard of living and laying the foundation for the development of each one of us.

via Socialists campaign for Kyiv City Council.

May 16, 2014

Ukrainian contradictions

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

Screen shot 2014-05-16 at 3.49.02 PM
The Marxist left now supporting the Kremlin over the crisis in Ukraine has lost the ability to think dialectically. Not that I want to reprise the often sterile polemics of the debate in the SWP of the late 1930s that pitted Trotsky and Cannon against Shachtman and Burnham, but a glance at the record on the supremely valuable Marxists Internet Archives will remind you of the Hegelian element of Marxist thought. From Trotsky’s “The ABC of Materialist Dialectics”,  a contribution to that debate:

Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.

Development through contradiction—those words are perfectly suited to recent Ukrainian history. Unfortunately some of our comrades are uncomfortable with contradiction. For them, East and West become synonymous with good and evil when it comes to the Ukraine. The Right Sector militias are fascists serving as the vanguard of a new war on Russia, while the Russian militias are likened to the Red Army. It of course helps them to think in these terms when the Right Sector smashes Lenin statues while the other side defends them. Of course, if politics were this simple we would have no need of Marxist dialectics. A Youtube clip would suffice.

This reductionist tendency reached a critical mass when the pro-Russian militias seized government office buildings in Donbas in the name of the Donetsk People’s Republic. For some Marxists, this was about as close as you can come today to the Paris Commune. At least that’s the only way I could understand Boris Kagarlitsky:

The future of the Donetsk Republic remains undecided, and this represents a huge historical opportunity of which there was not even a trace during the Maidan demonstrations, whose leaders could not always control the crowd, but kept rigid and effective control of the political agenda. By contrast, the Donetsk Republic formulates its agenda from below, literally on the run, in response to the public mood and the course of events. Strictly speaking this republic is not even a state—rather, it amounts to a coalition of diverse communities, most of them self-organised. In essence, it is the perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order. Curiously, the anarchists themselves refuse to have anything to do with it, preferring to repeat the state and patriotic rhetoric of the new Kiev rulers.

The perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order? I hate to break this to comrade Kagarlitsky but this sounds much more like Plato’s Republic than anything Karl Marx ever wrote.

Renfrey Clarke, a long-time member of the Trotskyist movement in Australia, translated Kagarlitsky’s article. He also posted a comment underneath it that was as breathless in its celebration of the Donetsk putsch as Kagarlitsky’s:

What can one say? In January 1905 the Russian workers were led by Father Gapon, and went out on the morning of Bloody Sunday to plead for the Tsar, their Little Father, to recognise the justice of their demands. We all know that finished up, both on the day concerned and over the succeeding months. In short order, the fact that the workers had started out with illusions ceased to decide anything.

Reading the postings by the Donetsk militants (http://www.rusvesna.su), I’m struck by the fact that the insurgency in south-eastern Ukraine is very much a movement of industrial workers. In the city of Yenakievo, and no doubt elsewhere, miners and steelworkers have adhered to the movement en masse. The militants have long since shed any illusions in Kiev governments and oligarchs (note that they’re burning down banks owned by Kolomoysky, one of the worst of the latter). And now that Putin has withdrawn even his rhetorical support for their cause, the militants are losing their illusions in the Russian state as well.

It is hard to tell whether Boris or Renfrey are reading material that runs counter to the sources they draw upon. Generally I think it is a good idea to keep track of material that is contrary to your own views. God knows that I can’t help that myself since just about every outlet on the left, from the soft to the hard, from Salon.com to WSWS.org, is much closer to Kagarlitsky and Clarke than to me.

I for one am far more interested in what the Ukrainian left has to say, even if that means being shunned by the rest of the left. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the class struggle trumps the geopolitical chess game and as such I would rather be aligned with a dozen revolutionaries in Kyiv and Odessa than with Putin’s millions.

The Autonomous Workers Union (AWU) is a group of anarchists and independent Marxists whose analysis I have grown to rely on. Their statements are collected on Libcom, an anarchist archive.

Ten days ago someone posted a query on Marxmail about workers actions in Donetsk. He wondered if the type of analysis offered up by Kagarlitsky and Clarke had any basis in reality:

According to the Rabkor.ru site (not sure how reliable its information is), the entire cycle of metallurgical production is currently stopped in the Donbass region, due to protests and work stoppages by miners, metal workers and related industrial workers.

A member of the AWU and Marxmail subscriber replied to him:

Rabkor is essentially writing fantasy fiction about Donbass.

In reality, miners’ unions are pro-unity and took part in unity rallies in Donetsk under Ukrainian flags. They have a good reason to do so: the problem of Donbass is that the coal expensive and low-quality, all the mines are very deep because all the top layers have already been mined; thus Donbass coal mines wouldn’t survive free market competition.

However, Ukrainian government keeps them afloat by subsidies for two reasons.

The first reason is that coal miners are surely the best organized and most militant group of workers in Ukraine that launched massive strikes in the 90s so the government fears them.

The second one is Russian gas price for Ukraine which is so high that it’s reasonable to buy Russian gas back from the EU countries. This creates demand for Ukrainian coal as an alternative to Russian gas.

Should Donbass join Russia, this would change since Russia has much cheaper open-pit coal from Siberia, not saying about oil and gas. In the Russian part of Donbass all coal mines were closed except the two belonging to Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.

And independent Donbass would not have the financial resources needed to sustain its coal mining. Thus miners have good reasons for being pro-unity.

The recent strike in Krasnodon on Rinat Akhmetov’s mines had pure economical reasons – it was directed against Akhmetov’s wage cuts and according to reports from the site of the events, the miners distanced themselves from separatists and did not put forward anti-government slogans.

As for Yenakiyevo, Ukrainian media report just about 300-strong mob of separatists seizing Akhmetov’s company office. I can’t either verify or confirm their relation to miners or metal workers.

Thererfore separatists are generally hostile to miners’ unions. Here are some statements:




I would say that the pro-Russian militias pose greater fascist threat to miners than government in Kiev.

Today the NY Times filed a report from the region that pretty much knocked the Kagarlitsky and Clarke analysis into a cocked hat. It turns out that, as the AWU member pointed out, the miners—as well as other industrial workers—had zero sympathy for the separationist thugs:

Thousands of steelworkers fanned out on Thursday through the city of Mariupol, establishing control over the streets and banishing the pro-Kremlin militants who until recently had seemed to be consolidating their grip on power, dealing a setback to Russia and possibly reversing the momentum in eastern Ukraine.

By late Thursday, miners and steelworkers had deployed in at least five cities, including the regional capital, Donetsk. They had not, however, become the dominant force there that they were in Mariupol, the region’s second-largest city and the site last week of a bloody confrontation between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militants.

While it was still far too early to say the tide had turned in eastern Ukraine, the day’s events were a blow to separatists who recently seized control here and in a dozen or so other cities and who held a referendum on independence on Sunday. Backed by the Russian propaganda machine and by 40,000 Russian troops just over the border, their grip on power seemed to be tightening every day.

I have heard several people compare the miners and steelworkers to the construction workers who went on a rampage against student antiwar protesters in New York during the Vietnam War. This struck me as odd since there are no reports of violence. In fact, the spectacle of thousands of miners and steelworkers was probably enough to convince the separatists to take it on the lam.

Of course the more interesting question is why so few miners and steelworkers saw the need to defend the new Paris Commune. It is probably the case that the eastern militias, like their counterparts in the west, lacked a social base. Just because a hundred men armed with AK-47’s can seize a police station, it does not mean that the people back them. Furthermore, Kyiv saw protests day after day in the tens of thousands. The intervention of the Right Sector only took place toward the end of a movement that had reached critical mass. Yanukovych fled Kyiv not because of armed fascist bands but because a mass movement made his rule untenable.

And just as importantly, a wing of the oligarchy led by Renat Akhmetov decided that Yanukovych had to go even if Stephen F. Cohen insisted that the kleptocrat was a “popularly elected President”.

Speaking of Akhmetov, the Times article explains why the miners and steelworkers had his interests as well as their own in mind when they decided to rid the streets of the separatist militias:

Mr. Akhmetov’s statement detailed the daunting problems facing the regional economy — and his assets — if the Donetsk People’s Republic were to win its struggle with Kiev.

“Nobody in the world will recognize it,” he said in a videotaped statement. “The structure of our economy is coal, industry, metallurgy, energy, machine works, chemicals and agriculture, and all the enterprises tied to these sectors. We will come under huge sanctions, we will not sell our products, cannot produce. This means the stopping of factories, this means unemployment, this means poverty.”

Now this is really where the question of contradiction really kicks in. Akhmetov, the “pro-unity” oligarch was Yanukovych’s primary backer until he decided that he—like the separatists—had to go.

Ukraine is a bundle of contradictions. It relies on Russian gas while at the same time it relies on European markets. Like Turkey, it straddles west and east. Turkey also considered joining the EU until it decided that its economic future was in the east. The tensions that are tearing Turkey apart also mirror Ukraine’s in some ways. Some Turks prefer the benevolent (at times) patriarchal rule of the AKP while those in Istanbul would like Turkey to be more like a “normal” European society.

To this date, the contradictions in Ukraine remain unresolved. With the oligarchs holding power, just as they have in the past, production will be geared not on the basis of human need but private profit. Even if putting a muzzle on the separatist gangs preserves the jobs of Ukrainian steelworkers and miners, the economic situation will continue to be perilous for the average person.

The only solution for Ukraine’s woes is to forge a workers party that can pose clear class demands. As utopian as that may sound right now, it will become more “practical” as the unresolved contradictions of Ukrainian society persist. Keep in mind that Ukraine had its own revolution in 1919-1920 that was as powerful as the Russian one next door. It is a 20th century tragedy that the Bolsheviks did not respond to it in the fashion it deserved. Let’s try to make amends for that by building a solidarity movement in the 21st century that reasserts the principles Lenin fought for (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/dec/28.htm) until his last breath on his dying bed:

He who undermines the unity and closest alliance between the Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers and peasants is helping the Kolchaks, the Denikins, the capitalist bandits of all countries.

Consequently, we Great-Russian Communists must repress with the utmost severity the slightest manifestation in our midst of Great-Russian nationalism, for such manifestations, which are a betrayal of communism in general, cause the gravest harm by dividing us from our Ukrainian comrades and thus playing into the hands of Denikin and his regime.

Consequently, we Great-Russian Communists must make concessions [emphasis added] when there are differences with the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists and Borotbists and these differences concern the state independence of the Ukraine, the forms of her alliance with Russia, and the national question in general.

May 15, 2014

Reminder: Ukraine defies vulgar Marxist formulas

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

NY Times, May 15 2014


Workers Take to Streets to Calm Tense Ukrainian City


A mill workshop at a plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

MARIUPOL, Ukraine — In what could represent a decisive turning point in the Ukrainian conflict and a setback for Russia, thousands of steelworkers fanned out Thursday over the city of Mariupol, establishing control over the streets and routing the pro-Kremlin militants who seized control several weeks ago.

By late Thursday, miners and steelworkers had deployed in at least five cities, including the regional capital, Donetsk, though they had not yet become the dominant force there that they are in Mariupol, the region’s second largest city and the site just last week of bloody confrontations between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militants,.

The workers are employees of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and a recent convert to the side of Ukrainian unity, who on Wednesday issued a statement rejecting the separatist cause of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic but endorsing greater local autonomy. His decision to throw his weight fully behind the interim government in Kiev could inflict a body blow to the separatists, already reeling from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s withdrawal of full-throated support last week.


Workers at a plant in Mariupol on Thursday. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Wearing only their protective clothing and hard-hats, the workers said they were “outside politics” and just trying to establish order. Faced with waves of steelworkers joined by the police, the pro-Russian protesters have melted away, as has any sign of the Donetsk People’s Republic or its representatives. Backhoes and dump trucks from the steelworkers’ factory dismantled all the barricades that had been erected.

Metinvest and DTEK, the two subsidiaries in metals and mining of Mr. Akhmetov’s company, System Capital Management, together employ 280,000 people in eastern Ukraine, forming an important and possibly decisive force in the region. They have a history of political activism stretching back to miner strikes that helped bring down the Soviet Union. In this conflict, they had not previously signaled their allegiance to one side or the other.

It was still too early to ascertain whether the separatists would regroup to resist the industrial workers, though none were to be found in and around Mariupol on Thursday, not even in the public administration building they had been occupying.

“We have to bring order to the city,” Aleksei Gorlov, a steelworker, said of his motivation for joining one of the unpaid and voluntary patrols that were organized at the Ilych Steel works. Groups of six or so steel workers accompany two policemen on the patrols. “People organize themselves,” he said. “In times of troubles, that is how it works.”

Workers from another mill, Azov Steel, took one side of the city, while the Ilych factory took the other. Both groups were trying to convince longshoremen to patrol the port, Mr. Gorlov said.

The two steel mills fly Ukrainian flags outside their headquarters, though, like so much else in Ukraine, the lines of loyalty were muddled. At least a portion of the police in the city had mutinied on Friday, leading to a shootout with the Ukrainian national guard, which killed at least seven people.

The chief executive of Ilych Steel, Yuri Zinchenko, is leading the steelworker patrols in the city. He said the company had remained on the sidelines as long as possible, while tacitly supporting unity with Ukraine by conveying to workers that a separatist victory would close export markets in Europe, devastating the factory and the town.

The Ilych Steel Works, a grimy scene of mid-20th century industrial sprawl, is one of Ukraine’s most important factories, producing five million tons of slab steel a year. About 50,000 people work in the steel industry in Mariupol, a city of 460,000. So far, 18,000 steelworkers have signed up for the patrols, Metinvest executives say.

“There’s no family in Mariupol that’s not connected to the steel industry,” Mr. Zinchenko said in an interview at his desk, decorated with a miniature Ukrainian flag. He said he had negotiated a truce with local representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but not the group’s leaders.

Mr. Akhmetov’s statement spelled out the daunting problems for the regional economy, and his assets, should the Donetsk People’s Republic win its struggle with the Kiev.

“Nobody in the world will recognize it,” he said in a videotaped statement. “The structure of our economy is coal, industry, metallurgy, energy, machine works, chemicals and agriculture and all the enterprises tied to these sectors. We will come under huge sanctions, we will not sell our products, cannot produce. This means the stopping of factories, this means unemployment, this means poverty.”

Russia itself exports steel, so has never been a significant market for the region’s output.

Residents welcomed the steelworker patrols for bringing an end to chaos and insecurity. They said that masked men had robbed four grocery stores, a store selling hunting rifles and a jewelry store, and had burned down a bank.

The crowds of pro-Russian protesters who had jeered and cursed Ukrainian soldiers last week were nowhere to be seen.

The Kiev government was forced to rebut reports that the police chief had been found hanging dead in the town. He had indeed been kidnapped by gunmen and severely beaten, but he was eventually rescued, the Interior Ministry said.

“There are a lot of idiots with guns in my city,” Aleksey Rybinsev, 38, a computer programmer who said he welcomed the new patrols, though he feared they might yet develop into another informal militia group. “I haven’t seen a policeman all day. I didn’t see them, and I didn’t want to see them.”

Aide to Erdogan kicks protester

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 1:46 pm

afcd292c-5f84-4034-8173-df986d612f35-460x276A protester is kicked by Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, as Special Forces police officers detain him during a protest against Erdogan’s visit to Soma, Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

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