Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2016

Remembering Michael Ratner

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 2:33 pm

Michael Ratner, one of the most effective and respected constitutional rights attorneys in the USA and president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, died of cancer yesterday. The NY Times ran an obit that was noteworthy for its recognition of his accomplishments (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/12/us/michael-ratner-lawyer-who-won-rights-for-guantanamo-prisoners-dies-at-72.html). When a leftist gets such a tribute from a newspaper infamous for its corporate loyalties, that is a sign of his importance.

I also recommend the obit that appeared in the Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/michael-ratner-1943-2016/) by David Cole, an outstanding constitutional rights attorney in his own right. Cole’s article concluded:

In an era of globalization, Ratner adapted the tactics of the classic civil-rights lawyer to concerns about global justice. Many of his lawsuits challenged US interventions abroad, especially in Central America. He pioneered the use of the Alien Tort Statute, a law enacted in 1789, to bring human-rights claims in US courts for torture and other grave human-rights abuses. He invoked the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which permits countries to prosecute torturers wherever they are found, to pursue accountability for US torture in German, Spanish, and French courts, when US avenues were blocked. In the latter cases, he did not prevail. But as he would have put it, “We filed 100 percent on principle.”

As someone who had a brief encounter with Michael Ratner and his former wife Margaret Ratner Kunstler in 1987, I can attest to the importance of his work and more generally that of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

At the time I was the President of the Board of Tecnica, a group that recruited volunteers to work with government agencies in Nicaragua. The focus was on programmers like myself but delegations included machinists, welders, physicians, engineers and other types of skills—either blue or white-collar. When people returned from a week in Nicaragua, they frequently returned for a longer period to begin work with a government ministry, a cooperative or other entity committed to the Sandinista revolution. Those that were not placed often became activists in their community as part of a broader movement in solidarity with a revolution Reagan was trying to crush.

In April 1987 the FBI launched an offensive against Tecnica that involved interrogating returned volunteers at their workplace about our group supposedly being involved in an espionage network transferring technology from Nicaragua to Cuba and then to the USSR. The Washington Post editorialized against the harassment on May 14th:

The Washington Post
May 14, 1987, Thursday, Final Edition

Questioning Nicaragua Volunteers

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In spite of all this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning large numbers of those who have returned from volunteer stints in Nicaragua. More than two years ago, Director William Webster testified that about 100 people had already been interviewed, and the pace has apparently picked up in recent months. The FBI will not discuss the reasons for these interviews other than to say that they are related to “foreign counterintelligence investigations.” This may be so, but in justifying inquiries such as these the bureau has a particularly heavy — and thus far unmet — burden of proof to bear.

That is all the more so given the unpleasant method in which some of the most recent questioning is said to have been conducted, which has prompted a House subcommittee to look into this matter. According to some who were subjected to the process last month, agents have arrived unannounced at work places. They have gone directly to personnel managers and asked to see specific employees in connection with a national security investigation. One volunteer charges that an agent threatened to deal directly with her boss if she refused to answer questions on the spot.

Those questioned believe they are being harassed for their political beliefs and activities. They say there is no evidence that any person who has traveled to Nicaragua in support of the contras, for example, has been treated in a similar manner. Public faith in the FBI depends critically on the perception that it will not be used for political purposes. The agency and the administration both owe a full explanation.

Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica who died four years ago, came to New York to meet with Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler at Bill Kunstler’s townhouse on Gay St. in the village. I joined him to go over the ramifications of the FBI intervention. Basically the two regarded it as a form of harassment and doubted that it would lead to arrests since clearly—as the Post editorial pointed out—we were doing nothing except sending volunteers to work in Nicaragua.

That being said, it was reassuring to have their commitment to handling our legal defense in the event that things escalated. I was very impressed with Michael Ratner’s ability to put this incident into historical perspective and to make us feel as if we had powerful allies against whichever obstacles would be put in our path.

On the day after the FBI visits to personnel offices took place, I have to admit that I was spooked. This was in the Reagan era when fears of an out-of-control executive were well grounded. In building up the Center for Constitutional Rights as an asset for activists taking considerable risks in building movements considered subversive by the national security state, people like Michael Ratner, Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Bill Kunstler himself performed a yeoman service to the revolutionary movement—god bless them.

 

May 11, 2016

The Freedom Party in Austria: the vanguard of a global red-brown movement

Filed under: National Bolshevism — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Norbert Hofer: Austria’s Donald Trump

Yesterday the NY Times reported on the great strides being made by the Freedom Party in Austria, which can be described pretty much as their version of the Trump campaign. Like the USA, Austria is being riven by the politics of immigration. The head of the Social Democratic Party Werner Faymann was ousted by his comrades after he made a deal with the People’s Party over tightening border controls. This is a Christian Democrat type party that has been shifting to the right, just like the Republican Party in the USA. The Social Democrats had been in a “Grand Coalition” with them, which you can think of as a ruling party that combined Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio’s economic programs.

Pressure from the Freedom Party [FPO] forced the People’s Party to the right, especially over immigration. While Faymann was willing to go along with them, the base of the party said nothing doing. Like the ascendant Trump campaign, the Freedom Party made a spectacular leap forward in last month’s parliamentary elections. Norbert Hofer, the party’s standard-bearer, got 1/3 of the vote and will now face the Green Party’s candidate in the presidential elections. The Times summed up the reaction of left-leaning Austrians to Hofer’s success:

The Freedom Party’s nationalist and anti-Islam message seems to have struck a chord even in Vienna, with its history as the cosmopolitan former capital of the multiethnic and multilingual Austro-Hungarian Empire, and — from 1918 onward — as “Red Vienna,” where workers fought street battles to resist the rise of Nazism, in contrast to the crowds who cheered Hitler when he annexed Austria in 1938.

For some on the left, the Freedom Party is apparently not verboten. In 2010 it organized a “Color revolutions in the CIS countries and their current impact” conference that took place in Vienna at the Imperial Hotel. As it happens, the participants were in complete agreement with most of the Western left, particularly the kind of people who write for websites that rally around Bashar al-Assad. Anton Shekhovtsov reported on the gathering on his blog, which should be bookmarked by anybody fed up with the “axis of resistance” bullshit:

As it could have been expected, everybody was discussing the “terrible” nature of the colour “revolutions” in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Strache [the Freedom Party leader at that time] particularly condemned the US that had allegedly orchestrated these revolutions with the help of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and National Democratic Institute (NDI). The presence of the representatives from the “affected countries” was not surprising: Georgia (Levan Pirveli), Ukraine (Vladyslav Lukyanov) and Kyrgyzstan (Bermet Akayeva).

Now how could you possibly not agree with speakers who castigate the USAID and the NDI that was founded by Madeline Albright even if they would also like to keep Muslims from entering the country? Nobody’s perfect, after all. In fact, the Russian delegation to the conference included Boris Kagarlitsky who is regarded as one of Russia’s leading Marxists. Even if he is critical of Vladimir Putin, that does not get in the way of the Kremlin funding his think-tank. They obviously understand the value of cobbling together reds like Kagarlitsky and a brown outfit like the FPO.

Six years ago I wrote a critique of an interview that Chris Hedges conducted with Noam Chomsky that put forward the idea that the USA was going through a period similar to the Weimar Republic. Chomsky commented:

There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over. The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen.

Of course, now six years later, Chomsky would undoubtedly state that such a “charismatic” figure has arisen—the porcine sexist and immigrant-hating presidential candidate who would get the red carpet treatment at an FPO gathering.

While I don’t think that a new Nazi takeover is imminent, there are parallels with the 1920s that must be mentioned especially in the context of a red-brown alliance that is developing all across Europe and the USA

In the early 1920s, a wing of the Communist Party developed a National Bolshevism program that envisioned collaboration between the red and the brown as I pointed out in an article I wrote about fifteen years ago:

The German party was then thrown into a new crisis over the Treaty of Rapallo, a peace agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union concluded at the end of April in 1922. This treaty raised the same sort of contradictions as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. How could Communists call for the overthrow of a regime that the Russian party had just pledged to maintain peaceful relations with? Stalin resolved this contradiction in a straightforward manner. He declared that anti-fascist agitation should immediate stop. The Communist Parties of 1922 had not become degenerated and still tried to maintain a revolutionary outlook, no matter the difficulties.

Karl Radek … interpreted the Treaty of Rapallo as a go-ahead to support the German bourgeoisie against the dominant European capitalisms, especially France. Germany was forced to sign a punitive reparations agreement after WWI and was not able to satisfy the Entente powers. France then marched into the Ruhr in order to seize control of the mines and steel mills. The German capitalist class screamed bloody murder and proto-fascist armed detachments marched into the Ruhr to confront the French troops.

Radek interpreted these German right-wing counter-measures as a sign of progressive nationalism and argued that a bloc of all classes was necessary to confront Anglo-French imperialism. At the height of the anti-French armed struggle in the Ruhr, the German Communist Party took Radek’s cue and began to issue feelers to the right-wing nationalists.

On June 20, 1922 Radek went completely overboard and made a speech proposing a de facto alliance between the Communists and the Fascists. This, needless to say, was in his capacity as official Comintern representative to the German party. It was at a time when Trotsky was still in good graces in the Soviet Union. Nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow when Radek urged that the Communists commemorate the death of Albert Schlageter, a freecorps figher who died in the Ruhr and was regarded as a martyr of the right-wing, a German Timothy McVeigh so to speak. Radek’s stated that “…we believe that the great majority of nationalist minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the Workers.”

Radek’s lunacy struck a chord with the German Communist ultraleftists who went even further in their enthusiasm for the right-wing fighters. Ruth Fischer gave a speech at a gathering of right-wing students where she echoed fascist themes:

Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class, even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts…But…how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klockner?…Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the “folkish” side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.

There are tons of people around today who are the progeny of National Bolshevism. Two prime examples are Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone who are occasional writing partners. Bricmont effused over Trump on March 30, 2016:

He is the first major political figure to call for “America First” meaning non-interventionism. He not only denounces the trillions of dollars spent in wars, deplores the dead and wounded American soldiers, but also speaks of the Iraqi victims of a war launched by a Republican President. He does so to a Republican public and manages to win its support. He denounces the empire of US military bases, claiming to prefer to build schools here in the United States. He wants good relations with Russia. He observes that the militarist policies pursued for decades have caused the United States to be hated throughout the world. He calls Sarkozy a criminal who should be judged for his role in Libya. Another advantage of Trump: he is detested by the neoconservatives, who are the main architects of the present disaster.

While Johnstone gives Trump his due (“Donald Trump has made it clear he wants to end the current hysterical anti-Putin pre-war propaganda and do business with Russia … All to the good”), she is far more enthusiastic about Marine Le Pen who she described as being “basically on the left” on the occasion of the 2012 elections:

If “the right” is defined first of all by subservience to finance capital, then aside from Sarkozy, Bayrou and perhaps Joly, all the other candidates were basically on the left.  And all of them except Sarkozy would be considered far to the left of any leading politician in the United States.

This applies notably to Marine Le Pen, whose social program was designed to win working class and youth votes.

Even she stressed that the immigration problem, as she saw it, was not the fault of the immigrants themselves but of the politicians and the elite who brought them here.  The main tone of her political message was resolutely populist, attacking the “Paris elite”.  Demagogic, yes, often vague and playing fast and loose with statistics, but a model of reason compared to the utterances of the “Tea Party”.

Is there an explanation for this kind of idiocy? I would say that it boils down to a retreat from class. In the heady, expansionist cycle of capitalism of the 1980s, postmodernism took root in the left as a way of theorizing about society without bothering with the hoary grand narratives based on class. It culminated in Hardt and Negri’s ridiculous book “Empire”.

Today under far less favorable economic conditions (except for the financial bourgeoisie), there are 10,000 writers who are drawn to the Kremlin like moths to a flame. Once again, why bother with useless criteria such as class when the real battle for humanity’s survival is the capability of the BRICS nations to leapfrog over the decadent Western capitalist countries committed to the EU? If this battle involves making common cause with filth such as Trump and Le Pen, that’s the cost of building a new international red-brown movement that will reduce the strife between nations and make the world safe for oligarchs everywhere, especially the Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese  rich who own $25 million co-ops in Chelsea and shop for Hermes pocketbooks on Madison Avenue.

May 10, 2016

In the Land of the Headhunters

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 1:31 pm

Catching up on some screeners that have been piling up on my shelves for at least two years, I watched “In the Land of the Headhunters” yesterday, a film that despite its lurid title is as important to film scholars and students of American Indian history—both professional and amateur (like me)—as “Nanook of the North”.

It was made in 1914 by Edward Curtis, a famed photographer of American Indians, who recruited a cast of Kwakwaka’wakw Indians for a fictional film about love and war between rival clans set in the pre-contact era. If the name of the nation is unfamiliar to you, its handicrafts are likely not. These are the people who created the mammoth totem poles in their homeland in British Columbia as well as other striking works of art made of wood or feathers. The film is much more interesting as a display of Kwakwaka’wakw art and dance than as a narrative. While native peoples in the Pacific coast of Canada had been forcibly assimilated into white society by this point and had even adopted Anglo names like Stanley Hunt, who starred as the warrior Motana, the film is fairly scrupulous about depicting their early history authentically—mostly as a result of Curtis relying on co-director George Hunt, the brother of the star and a village elder.

Curtis is a fascinating character. At one point I had his The North American Indian on my bookshelf at home until I was forced to sell off a bunch of my books to focus on those that required immediate attention. In 1906 J.P. Morgan gave Curtis $75,000 to document native peoples photographically, a sum that would be at least $1.5 million today. This is an example of his work, a Cherokee mother and her baby:

Curtis hired Frederick Webb Hodge as a research assistant. At the time Hodge was one of the country’s top anthropologists who developed close ties with Franz Boas, a fellow scholar at Columbia University with whom he shared a commitment to understanding “primitive” peoples in relative terms, rejecting stereotypes about one race being more “civilized” than another. Despite the title of Curtis’s film, it was clear that he had absorbed Hodge’s values. Like “Nanook of the North”, this is a loving tribute to a people that were truly free and in harmony with nature. Like Robert Flaherty, Curtis veers in the direction of “noble savage” romanticism but given the racist portrait of American Indians in Hollywood films back in 1914 and for the better part of the following century, such films were badly needed.

As it happens, Boas was also a student of Kwakwaka’wakw culture and played an important indirect role in the making of “In the Land of the Headhunters”. George Hunt, Curtis’s co-director, was a consultant to Boas when he was doing field work in British Columbia. He and his brother were members of the Tinglit nation, one that shares many of the cultural norms of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, especially the totem poles. Boas taught Hunt the Kwakwaka’wakw language and he then helped to collect artifacts for display at the 1893 World’s Fair where a replica of a native village was built and where 17 members reenacted daily life in the spirit of Curtis’s film.

Unfortunately, Boas being a product of his time insisted on the Kwakwaka’wakw maintaining an appearance that they had abandoned long before 1893. This meant requiring them to wear their hair long just as was the case in Curtis’s film. In an astute commentary on Boas’s flaws, Douglas Wax, a radical anthropologist and director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame (!), pointed out how Boas ended up reinforcing social Darwinist ideology despite his “cultural relativism”:

Likewise, Boas’ Kwakiutl were performing rituals that at home were no longer practiced, and which had never been intended for the kind of display expected at the Exposition. Curtis Hinsley writes that “They were aiding Boas in his effort to recapture a presumed pristine, pre-Columbian condition” (350), a state of affairs that sat well both with Boas’ scientific predilection—later realized in his advocacy of “salvage ethnography”, the attempt to reconstruct as much as possible of a tribe’s pre-contact culture before its adherents disappeared under the onslaught of Western civilization—and the nationalist leanings of the Exposition’s directors, who wanted the ethnographic exhibitions to form a sort of “baseline” against which the modernity of Anglo-America could be measured. Ironically, in their quest for greater authenticity, the anthropologists of the Bureau of Ethnology and the Peabody often ended up inventing native culture for the natives themselves. R.H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School, later recalled of the Chicago exposition that “In some cases the ethnologists… had to show the Indians how to build and dress because none of the present generation in such tribes knew” (In Rydell 1984: 252 n. 51). The focus on the enactment of the past, coupled with the insistence that Indian culture was only “authentic” insofar as it was free from the “taint” of Western civilization, had the effect of presenting Indian culture as something static, unchanging, and doomed to disappear. There was no room in either the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the day or the germinal cultural relativism just beginning to take shape for Indian cultures that continued to exist and to adapt to the changing world around them.

None of this should dissuade you from watching “In the Land of the Headhunters” on Amazon streaming or a version sans musical background on Youtube. For only $3.99, the Amazon version is well worth it as a complete work of art as the trailer above would indicate.

 

May 9, 2016

Ukraine, NATO and Noam Chomsky’s deficits

Filed under: Chomsky,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

 

Showing up on TomDispatch, the Guardian, Alternet, CounterPunch and ZNet just for starts is an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s new book Who Rules The World?, which is basically a variant on the same book he has been writing for 25 years or so. For example, in 2004 he came out with Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance and before that in 1992 What Uncle Sam Wants. Such books have had an enormous influence, mostly beneficial. Unfortunately, given the geopolitical orientation that serves as Chomsky’s compass, there is a tendency to adopt a Manichean understanding of world politics in which the USA symbolizes Darkness. While it is true that the USA is evil, it does not follow that those who oppose it are pure as the driven snow. Of course, an anarchist like Chomsky would never write the same kind of pro-Kremlin propaganda as a Seymour Hersh or a Patrick Cockburn, but he has come dangerously close on occasion and even wandered into their territory.

The most obvious example is Chomsky relying on the word of Cockburn about Syria who he described as “doing the best job of reporting” on ISIS. Probably like so many on the left, Chomsky is simply uninformed about the critiques of Cockburn mounted by Idrees Ahmad and others. It was Ahmad who debunked Cockburn’s characterization of the Assad dictatorship being ISIS’s main enemy. There was abundant evidence that the Baathists had worked out a nonaggression pact not long after ISIS showed up in Syria.

The excerpt does not take up Syria but it does have a section on Ukraine, another country susceptible to Manichean geopolitical reductionism. Chomsky writes:

Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand NATO to Ukraine. These plans were articulated explicitly at the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in NATO. The wording was unambiguous: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” With the “Orange Revolution” victory of pro-Western candidates in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” as a WikiLeaks report revealed.

Russia’s concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading U.S. establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. He writes that “the taproot of the current crisis [over Ukraine] is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” which Putin viewed as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.”

This passage encapsulates Chomsky’s intellectual and political deficits when it comes to the traditional Cold War narrative, especially quoting a realist like Mearsheimer. If I read something like moving “Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit”, alarm bells would go off. How in the world does an anarchist repeat the words of a shithook like Mearsheimer on Moscow’s prerogatives? By this yardstick, JFK had every right to blockade Cuba since it was traditionally in Washington’s orbit. Mearsheimer was a supporter of the first Gulf War, writing an op-ed piece in the NY Times on February 8, 1991 that concluded: “Fortunately, a quick victory will reduce losses on both sides and allow the U.S. to turn to the more difficult task of helping to construct a lasting political settlement in the region.” My suggestion is to stop treating Mearsheimer as some kind of expert witness. He is only a step above Henry Kissinger on the food chain.

Like so many on the left, Chomsky’s tendency is to find the secret telltale document that will reveal the truth about American intentions so that the scales will fall from his reader’s eyes and turn him into a resolute anti-imperialist. More often than not, the smoking gun turns up in Wikileaks as indicated above. What needs to be addressed, however, is the complex interplay of Western and Ukrainian interests with respect to NATO that are by no means as Manichean Black-and-White as Chomsky would have you believe.

Speaking of colors, a lot of the confusion arises with the Orange Revolution of 2004 that grew out of anger over the perception that the presidential elections that year had been rigged. It pitted the Western favorite Viktor Yushchenko against Viktor Yanukovych, whose initial victory was tainted by corruption, voter intimidation and outright fraud. Massive protests eventually led to a recount and Yuschenko being declared the winner.

Whatever Yuschenko or Daniel Fried favored, the fact was that NATO was not popular with the Ukrainian people—a fact that somehow gets lost in the shuffle in the millions of words written about their nation’s post-Soviet history. The Jamestown Foundation reported on a poll taken in 2008:

A recent public opinion poll on the issue, conducted by the Kyiv-based Sofia think-tank from May 7 to 14, showed that only 21.4 percent of Ukrainians are inclined to support NATO membership, and 53 percent of those polled approved of the April failure to secure a MAP [Membership Action Plan]. The poll identified the main reasons for the negative attitude to NATO membership. Most Ukrainians fear that this would spoil relations with Russia (74 percent of those polled), force them to take part in US-led wars (67 percent), exacerbate tension in society (60 percent), prompt more spending on defense (58 percent), and make Ukraine a target for terrorists (58 percent).

With so many leftists regarding the Ukrainians as an undifferentiated mass of puppets whose strings are pulled by George Soros (except in the workers’ paradises in Donetsk and Luhansk of course), this kind of information is best swept under the rug if it ever came up on their radar screen to begin with. People like Noam Chomsky, I’m afraid, only read material that reinforces their own bias.

The will of the people was obviously reflected in decisions made at the top. Despite the fact that the president of Ukraine was all in favor of a hard linkage to Washington, there was little evidence of rapid progress toward that end, nor any signs that Yanukovych, the Kremlin’s best friend, was particularly opposed to ties with NATO.

In 2006, Yanukovych became Ukraine’s Prime Minister, a post that is below that of President but that has significant political weight. He replaced Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been fired by Yuschenko for mismanaging the economy. Despite her reputation as a mortal enemy of Russia and a heroine of the Orange Revolution, she was Putin’s favorite politician in Ukraine and arrested for her part in a crooked deal that favored Russian gas exporters.

Despite his reputation as a fierce opponent of the West, Yanukovych was okay with NATO as Novye Izvestia reported on August 9, 2006:

Ukraine’s newly-appointed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, is continuing the previous government’s policy of integration into the European Union and NATO. What’s more, at the end of last week the Supreme Rada, controlled by Yanukovych, passed a resolution legalizing the presence of foreign troops in Ukraine. NATO soldiers will soon take part in three military exercises, and NATO vessels will visit Sevastopol in September.

One month later he made a speech at NATO HQ in Brussels that could have been made by Yuschenko himself, as reported by the BBC on September 21:

Today we have the intention of concentrating on deepening relationships of partnership with the Alliance on the basis of Intensified dialogue on membership and the annual goals of action plans.

Ukraine highly values the level of cooperation with NATO. We value continual support for our Euroatlantic desires, support for military reform and democratic and market transformations.

Among the foremost priorities of government activity are strengthening informational work in sphere of relations with NATO. There is not a lack of such programmes, but they need to be augmented with specific content.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, there’s a Washington Post article dated November 28, 2006 that reveals Yanukovych as a willing tool of the West—the kind of reprobate who deserved a swift kick in the pants from a bona fide anti-imperialist like Noam Chomsky:

“My goal, first, is to develop a strategic relationship between Ukraine and the United States that is predictable, effective and has a good perspective,” he said of his Washington visit, during which he will meet with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His aides are still hoping for a meeting with President Bush, however brief. According to protocol, he should meet only with the vice president, since he is not the head of state, but a presidential handshake would imply some acceptance of Yanukovych’s new incarnation.

Ever read anything about Yanukovych like this on TomDispatch, ZNet, CounterPunch, DissidentVoice, Alternet, Truthout or the Nation Magazine? I bet you didn’t.

Now some of you might think that Yanukovych was taking this tack because as Yuschenko’s subordinate he was obligated to. Was he just waiting for the day when he could reveal to the world that he was a genuine fighter for the “axis of resistance” and maybe the next best thing to Lenin today (even if he had to keep that a secret from Putin who described Lenin as Russia’s worst nightmare)?

In 2010, he would run for president against Yulia Tymoshenko, who was widely regarded by the Kremlin’s friends in the west as a mortal threat to Russia, the woman who was on the phone with Victoria Nuland about how Ukraine would become a colony of the West and who shocked the world (or at least the conspiracy-minded part of it) for advocating that the Russians be “nuked” for intervening in Ukraine against Euromaidan. As a candidate he could repudiate his sordid past, just as Donald Trump did when he spoke about making donations to politicians so as to influence legislation that would favor his businesses.

Well, once again reality defies anti-imperialist schemas as the Observer reported on January 10, 2010:

Yanukovych is understood to have angered Moscow by supporting Ukraine’s attempt to join the EU. But Tymoshenko has become the unexpected hero of the Kremlin, after tempering the anti-Russian stance that was a hallmark of her 2004 campaign and early premiership. While remaining avowedly pro-EU, she has built a pragmatic alliance with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. The two very publicly ended the drawn-out gas dispute between the two countries last winter and were credited with avoiding a repeat this year. Tymoshenko now calls the Orange Revolution “a revolution of lost opportunities”.

After winning the election, Yanukovych continued to demonstrate the trustworthiness to the West that somehow got overlooked in the analysis of Chomsky, Stephen F. Cohen, John Mearsheimer and other denizens of prestigious American academic outposts. On October 8, 2010 the BBC filed a report titled President reaffirms Ukraine’s EU bid, says ties with NATO “comfortable”. He reassured an audience of French academics and businessmen that he was on the same wavelength as them:

He reaffirmed Kiev’s bid to join the EU. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency at 0950 gmt on 8 October quoted him as saying: “I have always insisted and still insist that Ukraine will never drop either its European integration policy or its ambition to become a EU member.”

“Ukraine has the right to expect more from the EU,” Yanukovych continued. “We are not seeking to have it all and have it now, but we think that it is possible to speak today about the conclusion of an association agreement and about preparations for the introduction of visa-free travel.”

He said that, to achieve this, Ukraine was ready to do “homework” and carry out reforms.

Yanukovych also said that Ukraine was pleased with its relations with NATO, Interfax-Ukraine reported at 0906 gmt the same day.

“Relations with NATO are currently taking shape. They are comfortable for both Ukraine and NATO. They are open and honest, at least,” he said, adding that Ukraine was developing pragmatic relations with the alliance through participation in its peacekeeping missions and fight against terrorism.

Up until this point, the average Ukrainian could give less of a shit about NATO. He or she did want to be part of the EU because they saw it—rightly or wrongly—as an alternative to the kleptocracy they had been living under.

When Yanukovych was essentially blackmailed into backing away from the EU and falling in line with Russia economically and politically, the country erupted. Have doubts about whether Yanukovych was coerced? Then just consider what Fred Weir reported in the Christian Science Monitor on October 23, 2012:

President Vladimir Putin met with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych at the Russian leader’s country home Novo Ogaryovo late Monday, and declared some progress toward Mr. Putin’s goal of integrating Ukraine’s economy with Russia’s. But he gave no word addressing Mr. Yanukovych’s hope of winning a reduced price for Russian natural gas exports to his post-Soviet nation.

The meeting, though one in a routine series, illustrates that Ukraine may be gradually edging toward Russia as its other alternatives wear thin. The Ukrainian economy, which has few natural resources, has suffered badly in recent years, in part due to the deepening crisis in the European Union, in part thanks to the crippling price of Russian natural gas for its extremely inefficient industry and housing stock. Yanukovych’s insistence on prosecuting and jailing his main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has deeply alienated the EU and further complicated any chances for economic integration with the West.

“There are some reasons to think that Ukraine and Russia’s positions are drawing closer,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies.

“If we don’t develop our relations with Russia, Ukraine might be facing serious economic problems,” he adds. “Trade turnover with Europe has been falling due to the recession, and Ukraine’s government budget is in serious doubt. The only direction we can look for financial aid would be Russia. If the worst happens, and there is no money to pay pensions and other benefits, our authorities will be in trouble.”

That might ring a bell. It is just the Kremlin using its muscle on a head of state who had very little leverage. It is just the Russian version of what the Germans did to Alexi Tsipras. Once the Ukrainians got wind of this betrayal, they came out into the streets. They came out not because Victoria Nuland got on the phone with Yulia Tymoshenko or because Daniel Fried “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” If you’ve had to put up with police brutality, corruption, neglected social services, and a general sense of being a colonial subject, you too would take to the streets and raise hell. It is to the everlasting shame of the Western left that it cannot get it into its thick skull that the Syrians and Ukrainians have the same kind of aspirations as the rest of humanity, no matter what Noam Chomsky thinks.

May 8, 2016

Karl Marx rides again

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

**FILE**John Wayne appears in a scene from "True Grit," a Hal Wallis production, directed by Henry Hathaway. Wayne won his best-actor Oscar for his role in the 1969 movie. Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison, would have turned 100 on Saturday, May 26, 2007. He died at the age of 72 of stomach cancer in June of 1979 after a career that spanned more than 170 films. (AP Photo)

(From my 2014 archives)

Seemingly three or four years late in the game, Rolling Stone weighed in on the relevance of Karl Marx. In an article titled Marx Was Right: Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014, Sean McElwee told his readers that the Great Recession of 2008 confirmed Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system as “chaotic” and “crisis-prone”.

Just to make sure that nobody would accuse him of being a Commie, McElwee also points out that Marx was wrong about many things, especially failing to offer a proposal about what should replace capitalism. This lack left his writing “open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century.” Now it should be said that Marx never intended to write about the workings of socialism, not that this would have made any difference to Stalin. The horrors of the USSR have much less to do with Marx’s failure to write what he called “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” (Afterword to the 1873 edition of V. 1 of Capital) than the sheer backwardness of Czarist Russia, exacerbated by a bloody civil war.

I could not help but notice the renewal of interest in Karl Marx’s ideas just after the 2008 financial crisis began. While the Communist Manifesto is the second-best selling book in history, there was a pronounced spike in sales around that time, no doubt aided by Marx’s words that read like a prophecy: “The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.” McElwee paraphrases Marx: “Decades of deepening inequality reduced incomes, which led more and more Americans to take on debt. When there were no subprime borrows left to scheme, the whole façade fell apart, just as Marx knew it would.”

It is interesting to note that Sean McElwee does not allow his past associations with John Stossel, the Hudson Institute and Reason Magazine to prejudice him against Karl Marx, a sure sign that history is moving in the right direction. There was a time when McElwee found rightwing ideas more useful. After graduating from King’s College in New York, a school with the dubious distinction of having Dinesh D’Souza named president in 2010, McElwee’s writings tilted rightward as evidenced by his Reason article arguing that plastic garbage floating around in the oceans was not that worrisome.

After 2008 there were deep worries in the financial punditocracy. You might remember that scene in China Syndrome when the first shudders took place in the nuclear reactor. Was this going to be the “Big One”? That is how Nouriel Roubini must have felt on August 11, 2011 when he told a Wall Street Journal interviewer:

Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can self-destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That’s what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They’re not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else’s income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process.

Even more shockingly, George Magnus, an economist with the UBS investment bank, advised Bloomberg News readers to Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy just 18 days after Roubini’s interview appeared. Magnus quoted Marx’s Capital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.” But his solutions had more to do with Keynes than Marx, such as this one: “Governments and central banks could engage in direct spending on or indirect financing of national investment or infrastructure programs.” If Karl Marx confronted a crisis as deep as the one we faced in 2008, his advice would have been to nationalize the banks not use them as tools for fiscal pump-priming.

However, Umair Haque probably spoke for most of these commentators—including Sean McElwee, I imagine—when after posing the question Was Marx Right? in the Harvard Business Review he came down squarely on the side of capitalism. After giving Marx his due (“Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed”), Haque sides with McElwee on the “recipe” question: “Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but.”

It is, of course, only natural that Marx’s books get taken off the bookshelves and dusted off during a period of profound economic crisis. For that matter, a political crisis will also have the same effect. In 1967 I took the unprecedented steps of reading the Communist Manifesto after two years of facing the draft and working in Harlem as a welfare investigator. A combination of napalm bombing of peasant villages and urban rebellions against racism and poverty convinced me that a revolution was necessary and who better to consult on that matter than Karl Marx?

I made the decision at that time to join the movement founded by Leon Trotsky since his connections to Karl Marx seemed to have more of a pedigree than those of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. I failed to realize at the time that notions of pedigrees were exactly what prevented Marxism from full development.

In April 1939, just a year before his assassination, Leon Trotsky wrote Marxism in Our Time as an introduction to a new edition of Karl Marx’s V. 1 of Capital. It is of extraordinary value as a statement of the ABC’s of Marxism, as well as unwitting evidence of its unresolved contradictions.

Trotsky does not shy away from the key challenge to Marxism that I first heard in a social studies class in 1958 when the American economy was reaching new heights–what his article refers to as “the theory of increasing misery”. Our teacher said something that most of us heard in public school growing up in the USA. It goes something like this: Karl Marx was right about workers being oppressed and exploited in 1850 but he never would have dreamed about how wealthy they would become a hundred years later. Probably the first person to articulate this seemingly irrefutable point of view was Werner Sombart, the German ex-Marxist and author of Why there is no Socialism in America.

Writing in 1939, when misery was widespread throughout the capitalist world, Trotsky would seem to have had the upper hand but interestingly enough he sought to vindicate Marx’s analysis not on the basis of what existed during the depths of the Great Depression but at the height of its economic vitality: the roaring 20s. Trotsky observed that while industrial production increased by 50 per cent between 1920 and 1930, wages only rose only by 30 per cent. The workers were getting screwed in the best of times.

Like the nuclear reactor that withstood a meltdown in China Syndrome, the American economy supposedly is in recovery. Of course there are those unfortunates who cannot seem to find a job, especially in the Black community, but the stock market is at an all-time high and the housing market—according to the experts—is doing quite well. GM is showing a handsome profit even if it faces criminal charges for failing to inform owners of their cars that a faulty ignition might lead to fatal accidents.

More to the point, the NY Times of March 12, 2014 reported on economist Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that would be of little assurance to anybody except the wealthy. Piketty deploys a mountain of data to prove that economic inequality will not only persist into the future but that the system itself is the primary generator, not “vampire squids” as Matt Taibbi put it. It is the very nature of the system that leads to a concentration of wealth at the top and misery at the bottom. Timesman Eduardo Porter, not a critic of capitalism after the fashion of Nouriel Roubini, puts it bluntly:

The deep concern about the distribution of income and wealth that inspired 19th-century thinkers like David Ricardo and Karl Marx was attributed to a misunderstanding of the dynamics of growth leavened with the natural pessimism that would come from living in a time of enormous wealth and deep squalor, an era that gave us “Les Misérables” and “Oliver Twist.”

Today, of course, it’s far from obvious that the 19th-century pessimists were entirely wrong.

Glancing back across history from the present-day United States, it looks as if Kuznets’s curve swerved way off target. Wages have been depressed for years. Profits account for the largest share of national income since the 1930s. The richest 10 percent of Americans take a larger slice of the economic pie than they did in 1913, at the peak of the Gilded Age.

Recently, a trend within Marxism has emerged that argues against the importance of “immiseration” altogether. To somehow link revolution with a declining standard of living is tantamount to what they call “Catastrophism”, a word in the title of a collection of essays edited by West Coast radio host Sasha Lilley: Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

Lilley’s chapter (Great Chaos Under Heaven: Catastrophism and the Left) in the collection can be read in Google books, something I highly recommend it even if I disagree with every word. Lilley is a stimulating thinker who can at least be given credit for being forthright. While she correctly discredits the notion that the capitalist system will collapse as a result of its own contradictions (Marx instead believed that cyclical crisis was endemic to the system), she goes too far in saying that crisis itself was inimical to class consciousness and political struggle and that an expanding capitalist economy was far more propitious for the left:

With the exception of the 1930s, periods of intense working class combativeness in the United States have tended to coincide with periods of economic expansion, not contraction and crisis. The two big strike waves of the early twentieth century, from 1898 to 1904 and 1916 to 1920, took place during years of growth. These were periods in which radical workers forced employers to raise wages—by 35 percent between 1890 and 1920—and, through struggle, successfully shortened the workweek by nine hours. These strikes were fueled by relative prosperity, and industrial action fell off when the economy moved downward.

Workers struck throughout the early 1960s for that matter. This was a time when the UAW, the Teamsters, and the railway unions went out on strike for substantial wage increases all the time. During the brief time I was a public school teacher in the late 60s, Albert Shanker was one of the most “militant” trade unionists in the U.S. if going out on strike is some kind of litmus test. This was the guy after all who resulted in civilization being destroyed after he got his hands on a nuclear weapon, as the Doctor told Woody Allen in Sleeper after he awoke. That’s pretty militant but I do not think that’s the sort of thing Lilley had in mind.

But the kinds of strikes that capture Marxist’s attention are not the Samuel Gompers inspired affairs for higher wages. Instead we study what happened in Flint, Michigan in 1936 and 1937 when workers occupied factories and battled the cops and National Guard. This was a strike that began to educate workers about FDR back-stabbing the CIO. Like it and so many other major class battles of the 1930s, it eventually came to naught because the Communist or Social Democratic leadership (Victor and Walter Reuther in the case of the UAW) was determined to back FDR. If the trade union movement had broken with the Democrats and launched a labor party, American politics would look a lot different today.

In the final analysis, it is politics that is key for Marxism in our time. Accepting Piketty’s findings at face value (something made easier by the “new normal” of unemployment, stagnating wages, environmental despoliation, and decaying infrastructure), the emphasis should be on strengthening the left and challenging the rich on every single issue that divides us. Nobody can predict when and if the class struggle will reach such an advanced level that workers will become revolutionary, but the best way to move forward in that direction is by exploiting every injury and insult to those who own nothing but their labor power.

Although Marx was the first to understand the laws of motion in capitalism, it was really up to Lenin to think through what strategies were most effective. Ironically, it was lessons he learned from the German Social Democracy that helped him to formulate policies for a Czarist state that on the surface had little in common with a parliamentary democracy like Germany’s.

In “What is to be Done?”, Lenin appealed to his Russian co-thinkers to learn from the Germans:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

You have to wonder how our dogmatic Marxists of today can have so little appreciation for how the Russian social democracy operated. Could you imagine any of the 57 varieties of “Leninist” sects ever taking up the cause of a “bourgeois progressive” being denied the right to take office? Just recently, the Senate rejected Obama’s appointment of Debo Adegbile to a top civil rights post because he had participated in an appeal filed on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A powerful left party in the USA would have raised hell about this, even if the Democrats did not lift a finger.

In terms of the laws against “obscene” publications and pictures, and governmental interference in the election of professors, Lenin is amazingly prophetic when you think of Piss Christ and Ward Churchill. In many ways, capitalism is not just about whether the boss is enjoying a higher return on profits than a worker’s rise in wages since Marxism is not reducible to economic determinism. Capitalism constitutes an assault on our lives during every working moment of the day and the duty of a revolutionist is to find ways to get people to come out of their apolitical shell and take part in civil society in order to fight for greater freedoms now and total liberation after the final conflict.

But in order to become effective, Marxism has to learn how to avoid the “pedigree” trap alluded to above since size matters. Nothing prevents growth more than hairsplitting after all. To be taken seriously by working people, socialists have to get out of their isolation chambers and use ideas and language drawn from their nation’s own experience. This means first and foremost casting off the iconography of the Russian Revolution and especially terms like “communism” that would be totally misunderstood by the ordinary person even if they excite Slavoj Žižek.

In early 2010 the Gallup Poll discovered that 36 percent of Americans view socialism positively. Can you imagine if Gallup had used the word communism instead? That word might have registered more positively in the NYU sociology department but we are far more interested in what appeals to the average American.

As is most likely the case, Kshama Sawant was elected to City Council in Seattle by representing herself as a socialist rather than a communist and downplaying the dogmatic beliefs of her Trotskyist organization. Instead of making speeches about the need for a Leninist party, it was the need for a $15 minimum wage that won her volunteers and votes.

As a sign of how intoxicated the left can become when it loses track of what century it is in, the Socialist Workers Party of the USA—a group Leon Trotsky hailed as most faithful to his party-building conceptions—dismissed Sawant’s campaign as “reformist”:

Constrained to the narrow boundaries that typify capitalist election contests for local offices, her literature avoided important political issues that affect all workers, such as high unemployment and a woman’s right to choose abortion. It made no mention of key international issues, Syria, the place of the Cuban Revolution, the common interests of working people worldwide against the bosses or the global crisis of capitalism that is driving their attacks against us.

Considering that her bid was for City Council, it made eminent good sense for her not to make speeches about Syria and the Cuban Revolution (whatever that means in 2014, when the country seems poised to adopt the Chinese model).

Not long after the cops expelled the last Occupy protester out of the last public park, I had hopes that the movement could have come together and run candidates under the name of the Occupy Party. Unfortunately, the autonomist and anarchist prejudices of the key activists made this impossible. For the ordinary person, taking a leave of absence from their job in order to camp out in the bitter cold was never a realistic possibility to begin with.

Making every possible tie to the Occupy movement, the Sawant campaign became a small token of what may be possible if the American left puts aside its petty differences and began to come together in a common organization to defend the rights of working people for a livable wage as well as their freedom to go to a museum and see works like Piss Christ or photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.

We have no crystal ball that would indicate when such an organization has reached the critical mass that is necessary to lead to the explosive reaction that can transform society and usher in a new civilization based on freedom and justice but we must do everything in our power to remove all obstacles in our way, especially those put there in the name of Marxism.

May 6, 2016

Left Forum 2016: The Truth is Out There

Filed under: conspiracism,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

Ever since I left the SWP in late 1978, I have been attending the yearly Left Forums in NY that were known as the Socialist Scholars Conference prior to a split in the leading bodies in 2004 over Yugoslavia. Veteran social democrat Bogdan Denitch, who died a few months ago, was viewed as a Serbophobe by the faction that would go on to form the Left Forum in 2005. That year there were two conferences, one in the name of the Socialist Scholars Conference and the other as the Left Forum. Next year there was only the Left Forum as many of the figures aligned with Denitch reconciled with their erstwhile ideological opponents.

From 2005 until 2015 (excluding 2007 for some reason I can’t recall), I have written reports on the Left Forum and more recently produced videos of the sessions I attended. This year I have decided not to attend since it has reached the point where quantity has turned into quality as Plekhanov might have put it. Or more accurately, it has reached the point where quantity has turned into excrement. In a nutshell, the same sort of idiocy that has taken over the left on Syria has become so pervasive this year that I cannot justify spending $70 to attend. Are there panel discussions that would be worth my while? I suppose so but that is almost like someone trying to convince me to tune into WBAI. The station exudes such a stench that my hand refuses to obey my brain’s order to dial up 99.5FM.

In a very real sense, the Left Forum has been transformed into something resembling WBAI—leading to the pun that it has been subject to Pacification. The other night the hand got the upper hand over the brain and I listened to WBAI for a couple of minutes. I was not surprised to see that they were in the midst of one of their biweekly fund-drives. Nor was I surprised to see that they were offering premiums for a 5 DVD documentary titled “The Great Lies of History”. One, of course, is about 9/11. Another is: “Cancer: The Forbidden Cures”. It claims that the “drug-dominated medical profession” has suppressed cures including Mistletoe and Bicarbonate of Soda. I suppose they are geared to oral and stomach cancer respectively. I don’t think that Lew Hill had this in mind when he launched Pacifica in 1946.

While WBAI is much more fixated on such quackery from the likes of Gary Null, it too traffics in the sort of “anti-imperialism” that has swamped the Left Forum. Amy Goodman, the station’s star for what that’s worth, has allowed Seymour Hersh to babble on about Syria in the very week that Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami were in NY on a book tour for “Burning Country”. When Goodman was approached about doing an interview with them, she said no.

Meanwhile, Goodman and Slavoj Zizek are doing the closing plenary on Sunday night. At this stage of the game, inviting Zizek to speak to a left audience is almost as much of an insult as inviting Donald Trump. I have heard through the grapevine that Verso Press has cut its ties to the Elvis Superstar of Marxism over his filthy insistence that Syrian refugees adapt to Western norms but he is good enough for the Left Forum apparently.

I have to give credit to Amber A’lee Frost who sized up the 2015 Left Forum conference accurately in The Baffler.

That’s right: If you pay your registration fee and fill out the proper forms, you get a room and a table and a spot on the schedule. So in addition to all those experienced and intelligent rabble-rousers, Left Forum is a home for 9/11 Truthers, those who would save us from the terrors of “mandatory fluoridation,” and the generally batshit and/or pathologically anti-social. No one is required to observe their lectures, but they wander into other people’s and there is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing.

Frost singled out a panel from 2014 as a “wackjob nadir”, the infamous “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”).

The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.

What’s odd about their obsession with Zizek is a failure to see how close he is to them ideologically. With his disparagement of the Syrian rebels as “a mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups”, you’d think he’d be hoisted on their shoulders. Of course, on the far left some of the bitterest quarrels take place among sects that were born from the same womb. Just look at the Trotskyists.

It must be said at the outset that the people who run the Left Forum are not identified with this kind of conspiracism. It just so happens that it is a Big Tent that allows virtually anybody to schedule a panel discussion. The fact that this year’s conference is flooded with “Žižek Delenda Est” type barking dogs only reflects the siren’s call of conspiracism on the left, one in which a Marxist class analysis is so sorely lacking.

Let me walk you through a few of the panels to give you an idea of what you can get for your $70, starting with Deep State: The Fabricated Global War on Terrorism — Why the Left Should Unite to Expose and Rebel Against It that pretty much epitomized the malaise that afflicts the Left Forum. The organizers breathlessly announce:

The yellow-journalism press rarely reports that ISIS was 100% planned, created and controlled by US/NATO/Israel/Turkey/Saudi forces. Publicly this newest bogeyman is reviled and used to whip up fear and bellicosity. Behind the scenes, ISIS is our shock troops, the go-to mercenaries to effect regime change in places like Libya and Syria, and ensure wavering countries like France tow the line.

One of the speakers is Wayne Madsen, an “investigative reporter” and author of “Unmasking ISIS”. He is a 9/11 Truther, as are many in this neck of the woods. As part of his investigative reporting, he came up with the startling revelation that Barack Obama is a homosexual who belonged to the same Chicago gay bath house as Rahm Emmanuel. Madsen was able to provide about the same amount of proof as those who allege that Obama was born in Kenya. Madsen’s articles have appeared in  CounterPunch, In These Times, The Progressive and The Village Voice. Don’t ask me why.

For more of the same, you can attend How Universal U.S. Sovereignty Threatens World Peace. It features Sarah Flounders of the Workers World Party and Michael Perino, who once told CounterPunch readers that about 50,000 Blacks were “massacred” in Libya. Since the highest estimate for all casualties in the Libyan civil war was half of that, who knows where Perino got his number.

Want to know about The Situation in Ukraine? Then haul your ass over to a panel organized by UNAC, the “coalition” made up of Socialist Action members and other like-minded leftists who have succumbed totally to the “axis of resistance” disease now an epidemic on the left. The SA members were educated in the Socialist Workers Party, a group that was distinguished by its embrace of Ukrainian opponents of Soviet domination in the 1960s. One of the speakers is Bruce Gagnon, who like many in this milieu blames Kiev for starting the civil war in Ukraine when it threatened to remove Russian as one of the official languages as if the people in Donetsk and Luhansk would suffer the same kind of fate as Kurds in Turkey. This was essentially a Goebbels type of big lie. The truth is that Russian would continue as a regional language along with 17 other languages including Yiddish but Ukrainian would be the sole official language, which only meant that it would be used in driver license applications, etc. Was that a reason for Putin to dispatch thousands of special forces into Eastern Ukraine? Obviously not. His real intention was the same as Catherine the Great’s—to keep Ukraine under Russia’s thumb.

You can guess from the title The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and War in the “Middle East” (I have no idea what the scare quotes in the title indicate) what this one is about. Organized by the pro-Assad International Action Center, it includes Kazem Azin as one of the speakers, a contributor to Workers World newspaper and an ardent supporter of the Islamic Republic who once claimed that “Imam Khomeini was able for the first time to unite all religious groups and the majority of the people under the banner of Islam.” Of course, if you were stiff-necked enough to refuse being so united, you might end up being tortured in Evin prison.

If you miss the X-Files, as I certainly do, you might want to check in on Deep State: False Flags — How a United Left Could Defeat a “Global Gladio” Agenda since it features Richard Dolan as a panelist. Dolan is the author of “A History of False Flag Operations” but he is probably best known for his books on UFO’s and the National Security State. This leftist version of Fox Mulder once met with a CIA agent referred to as “Anonymous” who on his death bed revealed that The Truth Is Out There:

Facing impending kidney failure, this individual felt compelled to disclose secret information he feels is too important to keep secret. In the video, he claims to have served in the U.S. Army, worked for the CIA, and worked on the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book–one of the USAF’s official studies of UFOs. And he refers to the project as “partially a fraud.” Asking for clarification, Dolan states, “You’re saying some of the Blue Book cases were completely fictitious?” The anonymous man responds, “Yes.”

“Anonymous” alleges that, after an invasion threat from President Dwight Eisenhower, he and his superior at the CIA were allowed inside the secretive Area 51 in Nevada to gather intel and report back to the president. There, “Anonymous” describes seeing several alien spacecraft, including the craft that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Then, he and his superior were taken to the S-4 facility southwest of Area 51 where they observed live extraterrestrials.

On Sunday there’s more from UNAC at The Fight to End US Wars as well as two 9/11 Truther panels, one titled Time to Take Down the Wall Between the Left and the Truth Movement and the other Exposing 28 Pages of 9/11 Evidence, Legislating Transparency. Don’t forget to bring the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in case your mind begins to wander. Also, for vintage conspiracy theory navel-gazing, you can’t top The JFK Murder Cover-up: Your Rosetta Stone to Today’s News, Elections, Policy. I suppose that one of the speakers will argue that Al Qaeda was on the grassy knoll at the rate things are going.

Just to be clear, 90 percent of the workshops are more conventional in nature. I wish I could say that this would be sufficient for me to shell out $70 but I am afraid that far too many are empty theorizing that I have little use for. For example, something titled Marx, Hegel, and the Current Situation  is a non-starter. Apparently the participants have been studying Hegel for years at the Brecht Forum and at the Marxist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons. With all due respect to the speakers, I studied Hegel fifty years ago at the New School mostly to maintain a student deferment and don’t want to go back there now. But if Hegel works for you, don’t let me get in the way. That’s a helluva lot better than nattering about Area 51 but then again just about anything else is–especially for $70 that can be better spent on dinner for two at a Thai restaurant.

 

May 5, 2016

Kwame Somburu, ¡Presente!

Filed under: african-american,obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Yesterday I learned that Kwame Somburu had succumbed to cancer at the age of 81. Although he was a Facebook friend for a few years, I really had no personal connections to him previously. As was the case with any number of other people I knew from a previous lifetime in the Trotskyist movement, we had reconnected in cyberspace. After spending a few hours doing some Internet research on him, I regret that I had never spent time chatting with him back in the late sixties when we were both members of the NY branch of the SWP. About a month or two after joining the party, there was an incident involving Paul Boutelle, as Kwame was known at the time, that made it into my memoir:

UnrepMarx 1_Page_055 UnrepMarx 1_Page_056

It was that incident and Paul’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” that year that had always been stamped indelibly in my memory. After watching Kwame Somburu: A Conversation with a “Rabble Rouser”?, the superb interview with Paul made two years ago in Albany, NY by Kush Nuba and linked to below, I have a much better idea who he was and why I stayed in the Trotskyist movement as long as I did. It was smart and charismatic people like Paul Boutelle, his running mate Fred Halstead, and Peter Camejo that will always define the party for me—not the bizarre workerist cult I left in 1978.

Although I encourage everybody to watch the entire interview, I’d like to extract a few essential biographical points to put Kwame into context. His father was a small businessman doing radio repairs in Harlem where the family lived. From an early age, he was sensitive to racism starting with being forced to read Little Black Sambo in grade school. He has vivid memories of the people of Harlem spontaneously pouring into the streets after Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938.

In 1951 he quit high school because he was bored. He used to sit in the back row of the classroom reading a book and ignoring the teacher. Despite being a high school dropout, he had a tremendous intellectual curiosity reading everything that came his way from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to Karl Marx and Irish history, which interested him as an example of how other people can be colonized and exploited. Anything that was off the beaten track intrigued him.

As an autodidact, he was ideally suited to selling the World Book encyclopedia in the 1950s. Before there was an Internet, that’s the way that many families could do simple research without going to the library. My parents bought a copy of the Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that I read ravenously.

When Kwame wasn’t selling encyclopedias, he was driving a cab—a job he had in 1968 when I first ran into him at party headquarters. He had joined the movement three years earlier but had first run into the Trotskyists in 1960. He was walking down the street in Harlem when he spotted a couple of white guys collecting signatures to put SWP candidates on the ballot. Since he was always curious to see what out of the ordinary people were up to, he struck up a conversation with the party members. Because he had already been reading Marx, it was almost inevitable that he would end up at party headquarters even if McCarthyism lingered on. That year he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and kept loose ties to the party until he became a member 5 years later.

Kwame was one of the old-timers who left the SWP in 1983 as Jack Barnes finalized the purge of all those who resisted his bureaucratic assault on party norms and Trotskyist politics. What is striking about the interview with Kush Nuba is the sharpness of his mind and his ability to recall events from fifty years earlier in great detail. Is it possible that a lifetime of revolutionary politics can keep the mind in fighting trim? Cancer might have wreaked havoc with his body but his mind shined like a star until his last breath.

May 4, 2016

Sin Alas

Filed under: cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Sin Alas (Without Wings) is a flawed film made in Cuba by a young American who has a real flair for cinema—for Cuban politics and history much less so. The film is based on a Jorge Luis Borges short story titled “The Zahir”, which is about how its narrator became obsessed with the zahir—an Argentine coin that he associates with the Arabic word meaning “visible” or “evident”. For the Arabic-speaking masses, it summoned up the power of certain objects to have “the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad.”

After reading “The Zahir” prior to writing this review, it dawned on me why I never felt motivated to read Borges. The story is a study in erudite obscurantism of the sort that can fuel a thousand literature dissertations and one screenplay that had trouble deciding whether to be consistent with Borge’s ultra-subjectivism or to tell a story about life in Cuba today with all its social contradictions. In trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, director Ben Chace ended up with an interesting failure. If his ambitions exceeded his talents, at least you can admire a film that took considerable risks on behalf of a decidedly uncommercial project. If nothing else, the film is a stunning look at Havana street-life today, something that is surely worth the $4.99 to see it on Amazon or ITunes where it premieres today.

The main character in Chace’s film is Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), a seventy-year old who used to write dance reviews for Bohemia, a Cuban journal of the arts and culture. As the film begins, he sits on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building he took over from his father, an accountant with an American agribusiness who fled the island immediately after the revolution triumphed. Unlike his father, Luis stuck around since as he puts it, “I wanted to see where this thing was going”.

As he reads Granma, he discovers that a dancer named Isabela Munoz (Yulislievis Rodriguez) he had a brief affair with in 1967 has just died. After going to her funeral, he begins to become haunted by the strains of a tune that he remembered from the days he spent with her but cannot place. It becomes his zahir, so to speak.

To help him track down the composition, he recruits his oldest friend Ovilio (Mario Limonta), an accomplished guitar player who has the brilliant idea to walk around Havana asking oldsters like them if they can “name that tune” as they put it in a popular 1960s TV show. The chemistry between the two veteran Cuban actors and the obviously nonprofessionals they interact with on the streets is what makes the film so memorable and bordering on greatness.

What undercuts its success is Ben Chace’s sketchy understanding of Cuban history and politics since 1959. Although he is a minor character, Isabela’s husband—a top Cuban military officer—is rather cartoonish. At one point, Vargas tells Ovilio he was taking a big chance having an affair with his wife since such a big shot could have had him killed. This sounds much more like the sort of thing that might have happened when Batista was in power. If Chace had simply said that the man could have had him fired from Bohemia, it would have been much more plausible.

Another false note occurs when in the lobby following a performance by Isabela, her husband questions whether the ballet was “revolutionary” enough since it romanticized the sort of domestic strife that could be found in any Havana neighborhood. Vargas remonstrates with the officer, telling him that art has its own imperatives and must only be judged on its basis to stir the emotions. One wonders if Chace has any real familiarity with Cuban art and culture, which departed from socialist realist norms from its birth. Cuban ballet has never been under the thumb of bureaucrats, nor has any other art form.

To give Chace his due, he has Isabela arguing with Vargas over the possibilities of leaving Cuba where they could enjoy a life together. She says that she is too committed to the revolution which allowed a poor girl from the provinces to become a successful artist.

There are inklings that the director, who also wrote the script, was sensitive to the pressures on Cuba that might make such a rags to cultural riches impossible in the future. A minor subplot involves a married couple from Vargas’s building named Yuni and Katrina who have been forced to live with her mother due to insufficient funds. Yuni drives a pedicab and can hardly make ends meet, while Katrina works in a restaurant owned by one of Cuba’s emerging petty bourgeoisie. As he begins to put the make on her, Yuni makes plans to leave Cuba by boat. An entire film could have been made about Yuni and Katrina, one that would have been an important artistic intervention into the key question facing Cubans today—namely whether it will be possible any longer for someone like Isabela Munoz to make the transition from an impoverished countryside into the top ranks of Cuban dance.

In an interview with the Hollywood Times, Chace sounded really good on the responsibility of artists, particularly those from the USA, to tell the truth about Cuba. Even if he succeeded only partially, he deserves our respect.

That’s the strange thing, and no one gets it. No one knows what the hell’s going on down there. I wanted to just show what people were going through and hopefully show that there’s just a lot of culture and humanity and great stuff there that in a way is suffering because of our ignorance of the situation. You know if we knew how fucked up it was down there we’d try to do something to change it but no one understands that we’re just given propaganda on all sides. We’re given this very thin and shallow idea of what is going on in Cuba you know? It’s like some woman dancing, Fidel, and what else do we know about it? A couple old cars. No one really knows what the daily struggle down there is like for people and my film I think touches on it, I think I did an okay job with this one character, but it goes deeper than that. You kind of have to go, and even if you go you have to spend a lot of time to get to the truth of it because people won’t say things out loud, there’s so much implicit stuff and there’s so much that you can say out loud and stuff you just have to witness. To me, it’s a labyrinth that’s why when I was like Borges, I was like what can I do to describe this, I need like a labyrinth blueprint to like tape images to and collect this thing and hopefully it will come close to representing something about the reality of that place.

May 3, 2016

Richard Greener: a life in radio

Filed under: commercialism,radio — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

The interview with Richard Greener above was prompted by his commentary on the death of KGO, an AM station in San Francisco that featured local news and talk until it was bought by Citadel in 2007 and turned into a typical soulless syndicated programming automaton as former KGO on-air host Claudia Lamb put it in a Soundwaves article I sent to Richard a month or so ago.

Citadel, along with Cumulus, Entercom and Clear Channel (a.k.a. iHeart Radio) destroyed radio as we knew it. If you can’t stand to listen to radio anymore you can thank these companies. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed them to consolidate thousands of Mom-and-Pop radio stations into just a handful of owners. What was once a thriving marketplace of ideas and new music became a moribund feedback loop of homogeneity and satellite programs.

Richard summed up what was going on:

Thanks Louis…

I was one of 6 partners in US Radio, Inc., which was completely controlled by a limited partnership in which I was also a partner. All of this was more than 50% owned by a single investor, Ragan Henry. Ragan was a black attorney in Philadelphia. In 1985, when I was VP/General Manager of Radio Station WAOK in Atlanta, the flagship station for our group, Ragan called me and asked this question: “What is the price at which you cannot say ‘No’ to an offer to buy WAOK?” We sold WAOK, my radio station, for $4 million. This was the largest amount ever spent on what was called a Class 4 AM station. At the closing in Philadelphia I was heartbroken. I was losing my radio station. Yes, I was fabulously compensated. But my heart was broken. Money doesn’t count. At the closing table, Ragan leaned over to me and whispered: “I never fell in love with anything I’ve owned.” Well, of course not. That’s the difference between an investor and a broadcaster.

I spent 33 years in radio, including the last 7 years where I owned part of the company but was retired from active, daily management after my 4th heart attack. As much as I wanted to work, I couldn’t. Still, Ragan insisted I get paid. As a Director of the company I tried to stop my own salary and he ruled me “out of order.”

 From 1981 to 1996 we bought, operated and sold more than 30 radio stations from coast-to-coast, almost all Black Programmed. In the end, in 1996, we sold our last 18 stations, all of them to Clear Channel Communications. We made $219 million. Yes, I was a partner. Nevertheless, I was a broadcaster first. I know how Claudia Lamb feels.

That’s why the memoir I’m writing is titled, “The Last of the Radio Negroes.”

I have been thinking about the decline of radio lately largely because of my dissatisfaction with classical music programming on both FM stations and “the cloud” that are now accessible to me through a Sonos Playbar, a device that I bought to improve the sound of my flat screen TV as well as its ability to access Internet-based programming. With literally thousands of radio stations at my fingertips, I find myself as dissatisfied as I am with cable TV—the proverbial 500 channels and nothing to watch.

As I pointed out to Richard in the beginning of the interview, radio has been an important part of my life for more than sixty years as these vignettes would indicate:

  • 1952: My parents had still not bought a TV. In the evenings we sat in the living room listening to shows like “Mercedes McCambridge for the Defense” that was in the Perry Mason genre. My parents would sit on the sofa listening to the show as they read one of the ten or so magazines they subscribed to, including Colliers that featured short stories by Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, J. D. Salinger, and Kurt Vonnegut. Once the TV entered our lives, the magazine subscriptions all lapsed.
  • 1960: I begin listening to WBAI over a high-power FM antenna that our TV repairman had installed on a tall pole in our backyard 90 miles from New York. I listen mostly to music, including Gunther Schuller’s amazing survey of 20th century music. Any resemblance to that station and today’s is purely coincidental.
  • 1966: I am living in Hoboken and studying philosophy at the New School, just across the river, mostly to maintain a student deferment from the draft. I usually go to sleep at 4am, having read Hegel or Kant all through the night as I listen to WNCN. “Listening with Watson” starts at midnight and ends at 6am. William Watson would typically start with the complete “Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach performed on a piano by João Carlos Martins without any interruptions. Once the last record had been played, Watson would say something like “Wasn’t that wonderful? Let’s play it again” and he did.

I search desperately for something on the Sonos or the Boston Acoustics radio that sits on my night-table, a very fine receiver. All the classical music follows the same predictable pattern, drawn from the late romantic repertory. If I hear Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite one more time, I will be tempted to look into assisted suicide. Radio Survivor is a website that was started by Matthew Lasar, the author of “Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network”, and two other people who describe themselves: “We are obsessed with the future of radio and are charmed by radio historians, radio dramatists, radio bloggers, and anyone else who cares about radio as deeply as we do.” Lasar wrote about classical music programming today most eloquently:

I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.

The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.

 

April 30, 2016

East of Salinas

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 9:54 pm

Bullfrog Films is a small-scale film distribution company in rural Pennsylvania that is dedicated to works made by directors and screenwriters with a social conscience. I try to spread the word on their latest offerings since they generally have relevance to the struggle against capitalist exploitation. “East of Salinas” is a case in point. Aired originally on PBS, this fifty-three-minute documentary focuses on a family of undocumented farmworkers from Mexico who are struggling to survive against impossible odds in the town where John Steinbeck was born and where much of his fiction was set. The star of the film is a fourth grader named José who is a poster child for the intrinsic values of such people who are demonized as rapists, gangsters and drug dealers by Donald Trump. José loves school, respects his parents, and puts up with all sorts of indignities with great aplomb given his youth.

The fourth grade teacher is Oscar Ramos, who like José grew up in a family of undocumented farmworkers. From an early age Ramos had a burning ambition to be a schoolteacher. Watching him inspire and challenge a class made up of children like José is one of the film’s greatest pleasures, even if much of it leaves you with a feeling of bitterness over how poor people have to put up with terrible living conditions, job insecurity and the constant threat of la migra. These are people who work 10 to 12 hours a day chopping lettuce so that you can enjoy a nutrient-free salad with dinner, while they are often forced to survive on rice and beans dispensed by church pantries.

Director Laura Pacheco, a trained anthropologist, gave an interview to PBS that while not mentioning Donald Trump offered one of the main reasons this documentary should be shown in classrooms around the country now:

I think East of Salinas should be required viewing for every candidate! Immigration is indeed such a hot topic now – and finding a path towards citizenship for the 11 million undocumented is more important now than ever. But what we really hope is that people who see the film are able to put aside their politics for an hour and settle into Jose’s story. His hope for his future is heartwarming.

There are 2 million kids like Jose in America. They all want to contribute and make their communities a better place. America is full of opportunities and I hope after seeing East of Salinas, the door to providing these opportunities to kids like Jose will open a bit wider. I think because we’ve focused on one story and stayed away from polarizing politics, the film can be used to encourage a different conversation around immigration reform.

For rental information to institutions and individuals, go to http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/eosa.html

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