Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 14, 2017

The dubious friends of Donald Trump

Filed under: Trump — louisproyect @ 1:03 pm

May 12, 2017

Scott Lucas on sarin gas attack disinformation

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:09 pm

Andrzej Wajda, Art and the Struggle for Freedom

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH
May 12, 2017

“Afterimage” opened theatrically in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on May 19th, to be followed at the Laemmle Theaters in LA a week later. Made in 2016 by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his ninetieth year and just before his death, it incorporates the dominant theme in a filmmaking career going back to 1955—namely the Polish national struggle that has been defined by its relationship to Russia for hundreds of years.

“Afterimage” is based on historical events surrounding the Stalinist persecution of Władysław Strzemiński, an abstract artist who paid dearly for speaking out against Socialist Realism in 1950, just as the Polish United Workers’ Party was consolidating its grip on the nation. Strzemiński, who lost an arm and a leg as an officer in WWI, never let that disability stand in the way. In 1918, he attended classes at the First Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) in Moscow, where he first made contact with Casimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. He became Poland’s most passionate advocate of Russian futurism and returned to his country in full support of the Russian Revolution and the bold artistic experimentation of the Communist nation’s heroic early years.

In 1945 he co-founded the State Higher School of the Visual Arts (SHSVA) in Lodz, where he lectured on art theory and history. The school created a Neo-Visual Room that displayed a collection of his work that was based on the theory of Unism that was a synthesis of 20th century modernist trends, including Constructivism. This was a movement initiated by Vladimir Tatlin in 1913 for which art and revolution were mutually reinforcing. The Constructivists sought to make art accessible to the public and frequently created works for public festivals and street designs in the 1920s. For Strzemiński, this aspect of Constructivism was less attractive—no doubt a function of the USSR having turned into a Stalinist nightmare for workers and artists alike.

Unism stressed the complete unity of paintings based on internal laws emerging from visual affinities regardless of their origins. The title of the film originates from the importance of afterimages in this theory. As Strzemiński tells his students in the early moments of the film, they are what is left in the imagination after you close your eyes. Indeed, one of his experiments was to record optical impressions caused by looking at the sun such as the 1948 painting “Sun’s Aftersight. Woman at the window”.

The film begins brilliantly with Strzemiński customarily sitting on the floor of his apartment on the upper floor of a drab building in Lodz while he works on his latest canvas. All of a sudden a massive red sheet as tall is the building is draped across the edifice and covers his windows, robbing him of the necessary sunlight the “afterimages” artist relies on. He rises himself clumsily upon his one good leg, takes up his crutches and opens the windows. Without bothering to see what the red fabric was all about, he takes a kitchen knife and cuts large holes in order to continue with his work. Seconds later, we see what he took a knife to—a monumental portrait of Stalin. That was just the beginning of his clash with the New Order.

Continue reading

May 7, 2017

Lars Lih versus Nikolai Sukhanov: who is more credible on “old Bolshevism”?

Filed under: Lenin,Russia — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Nikolai Sukhanov

It is difficult to tell whether Lars Lih had any ulterior motives in trying to establish Kamenev and Stalin as superior theoretically to Trotsky on the dynamics of the October 1917 revolution since he has so little to say beyond the boundaries of a relatively narrow chronological framework. He puts 1917 under a microscope in order to establish that “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was never rejected by Lenin no matter what he said in the April Theses and that Kamenev/Stalin’s differences with Lenin were minor in comparison to those that existed between Lenin and Trotsky.

Does Lih have any interest in writing about how “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was applied to the Chinese revolution? If Stalin had such a keen understanding of Marxism and the superiority of this strategic goal to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, how did China end up so disastrously for Chinese workers in 1927 following Stalin’s instructions a decade after his superiority was demonstrated? Inquiring minds are dying to know.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to go into such questions. Instead I will stay within the same narrow framework as him but hope to shed light on the role of Kamenev in “old Bolshevism” by referring to someone totally outside of the Trotskyist orthodoxy that Lih considers so unreliable. I have already referred to Alexander Rabinowitch, a historian with no links to Trotskyism, who wrote in “Prelude to Revolution”:

But all this changed in the middle of March with the return from Siberia of Kamenev, Stalin, and M. K. Muranov and their subsequent seizure of control of Pravda. Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day.

Well, who knows? Maybe Rabinowitch was briefly a member of the Young Socialist Alliance and took classes with George Novack. I don’t remember running into him at Oberlin. That certainly would rule him out as a reliable source. Did he fabricate the Stalin quote about the slogan “Down with the War” being useless? If he did, I must denounce him as a rascal.

Now you certainly can’t ever suspect Nikolai Sukhanov of being a Trotskyist. Between 1919 and 1921 Sukhanov wrote a seven-volume memoir of the Russian Revolution that obviously would have not been a transmission belt of Trotskyist ideology, especially since he was a leading member of the Mensheviks. Based on what I have seen in the 686 page abridged version of this tome published by Princeton University Press in 1984, I wish that someone would translate the entire work into English one of these days since it is an important scholarly resource and a very lively read. What follows are excerpts from “The Russian Revolution of 1917” with my introduction to each one that have a bearing on the dubious effort to elevate Kamenev and “old Bolshevik” orthodoxy. (Stalin is mostly ignored in Sukhanov’s book.)


[page 191. Molotov, who later became famous for his cocktail, speaks to a Congress of Soviet meeting in favor of power passing from the Provisional Government to the “hands of the democracy”, which probably meant the Soviets. Sukhanov points out that he was speaking only for himself.]

Throughout the course of the revolution, down to October the problem of the relations between the official Government and the Soviets kept obtruding itself. This problem, however, was always conceived of and treated as a political problem, which the question at issue was political relations. But in this case the question was concerned with the organizational and technical interrelationships (and extremely complicated ones at that.)

It is natural that in the midst of a still fiercely raging struggle for the new order, not all those present at the meeting [on March 1] grasp and clarify all this. And the debate was diffuse, incoherent and confused. A whole series of speakers started talking precisely about political relations, about ‘support’ for the provisional Government, ‘reciprocity’, ‘insofar as … ‘ a negative attitude towards the bourgeoisie, and so on. Consequently talk took us back to the Ex. Comm. session of March 1st, in which conditions and a programme for the future Cabinet were elaborated.

I remember especially well a speech by the Bolshevik Molotov. This official party representative only now collected his thoughts and for the first time began talking about the necessity of all political power to pass into the hands of the democracy. He didn’t suggest anything concrete, but he advanced precisely this principle—instead of ‘control’ over the bourgeois Government and ‘pressure’ on it.

But it turned out that not only was Molotov speaking as an irresponsible critic, who could find fault because he was doing nothing and not suggesting anything concrete; it seemed, besides, the opinion he expressed was not at all that of his party or at least of those of its leaders who were available. On the following day we learned from the papers that on March 3rd the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks had declared that ‘it would not oppose the authority of the Provisional Government insofar as its activities corresponded to the interests of the proletariat and the broad democratic masses of the people’, and announced ‘its decision to carry on the most implacable struggle against any attempts of the Provisional government to restore the monarchist regime in any form whatsoever’.


[pp. 289-292. Lenin’s April Theses were “lunatic ideas” according to the “old Bolsheviks”. Sukhanov’s words reek of hostility to the working class but attest to the clash with party leaders like Kamenev who would fall into the position of “outlaws” and “internal traitors.”]

About a week after his arrival the famous First Theses of Lenin were printed in Pravda, in the form of an article. They contained a résumé of the new doctrine expounded in his speeches; they lacked the same thing as his speeches: an economic programme and a Marxist analysis of the objective conditions of our revolution. The Theses were published in Lenin’s name alone: not one Bolshevik organization, or group, or even individual had joined him. And the editors of Pravda for their part thought it necessary to emphasize Lenin’s isolation and their independence of him. ‘As for Lenin’s general schema,’ wrote Pravda, ‘it seems us unacceptable, in so far as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois democratic revolution is finished and counts the immediate conversion of that revolution into a Socialist revolution.’

It appeared that the Marxist foundations of the Bolshevik Party were firm, that the Bolshevik party mass had taken up arms to defend against Lenin the elementary foundations of scientific Socialism, Bolshevism itself, and the old traditional Lenin.

Alas! Many people, including myself, were vainly deluded: Lenin compelled his Bolsheviks to accept his ‘lunatic ideas’ in their entirety. How and why did this happen? I have no intention of investigating this interesting question au fond, nevertheless I don’t think it superfluous here to note a few undoubted factors in the capitulation of the old Social-Democratic Bolshevism to Lenin’s reckless anarcho-seditious system.

That is how matters stood in the Bolshevik general staff. As for the mass of party officers, they were far from distinguished. Amongst the Bolshevik officers there were many first-rate technicians in party and professional work, and not a few ‘romantics’, but extremely few political thinkers and conscious Socialists.

In consequence every form of radicalism and external Leftism had an invincible attraction for the Bolshevik mass, while the natural ‘line’ of work consisted of demagogy. This was very often all the political wisdom of the Bolshevik committee-men boiled down to.

Thus the ‘party public’ of course quite lacked the strength or internal resources to oppose anything whatever to Lenin’s onslaught.

Lenin’s radicalism, his heedless ‘Leftism’, and primitive demagogy, unrestrained either by science or common sense, later secured his success among the broadest proletarian-muzhik masses who had had no other teaching than that of the Tsarist whip. But the same characteristics of this Leninist propaganda also seduced the more backward, less literate elements of the party itself. Very soon after Lenin’s arrival they were faced by an alternative: either keep the old principles of Social-Democracy and Marxist science, but without Lenin, without the masses, and without the party; or stay with Lenin and the party and conquer the masses together in an easy way, having thrown overboard the obscure, unfamiliar Marxist principles. It’s understandable that the mass of party Bolsheviks, though after some vacillation, decided on the latter.

But the attitude of this mass could not help but have a decisive influence on the fully-conscious Bolshevik elements too, on the Bolshevik generals, for after Lenin’s conquest of the officers of the party, people like Kamenev, for instance, were completely isolated; they had fallen into the position of outlaws and internal traitors. And the implacable Thunderer soon subjected them, together with other infidels, to such abuse that not all of them could endure it. It goes without saying that the generals, even those who had read Marx and Engels, were incapable of sustaining such an ordeal. And Lenin won victory after another.


[pp. 225-227. For obvious reasons, Lars Lih devotes very few words to the question of Kamenev’s views on Russia continuing the war. As indicated by the Rabinowitch citation above, this was the source of the real tension with the “old Bolsheviks” and not over whether the democratic dictatorship had been consummated or not. Kamenev is basically recruiting this Menshevik leader to write for Pravda and not to worry about whether his views on the war clashed with Lenin’s. Unless Lih comes to terms with these issues, his historiography will have a huge hole stuck in its middle.]

As a political figure Kamenev was undoubtedly an exceptional, though not an independent, force. Lacking either sharp corners, great intellectual striking power, or original language, he was not fitted to be a leader; by himself he had nowhere to lead the masses. Left alone he would not fail to be assimilated by someone. It was always necessary to take him in tow, and if he sometimes balked it was never very violently. But as one member of a leading group Kamenev, with his political schooling and supreme oratorical gifts, was extremely distinguished and amongst the Bolsheviks he was in many respects irreplaceable.

Personally he was gentle and good-hearted. All this taken together added up to his role in the Bolshevik Party. He always stood on its Right, conciliationist, passive wing. And sometimes he would balk, defending evolutionary methods or a moderate political course. At the beginning of the revolution he jibbed against Lenin, jibbed at the October Revolution jibbed at the general havoc and terror after the revolt, jibbed on supply questions in the second year of the Bolshevik regime. But—he always surrendered on all points. Not having much faith in himself, he recently (in the autumn of 1918) said to me, in order to justify himself in his own eyes: ‘As for myself I am more and more convinced that Lenin never makes a mistake. In the last analysis he is always right. How often has it seemed that he was slipping up—either in his prognosis or in his political line! But in the last analysis his prognosis and his line were always justified.’

Here is what Kamenev wanted to talk to me about then:

‘About the article in Pravda: our people have told you must first declare yourself a Bolshevik. That’s all nonsense no attention to it; please write the article. Here is the point. D’you read Pravda? You know, it has a completely unseemly and unsuitable tone. It has a terrible reputation. When I got here I was in despair. What could be done? I even thought of shutting down this Pravda altogether and getting out a new central organ under a different name. But that’s impossible. In our party too much is bound up with the name Pravda. It must stay. It’ll be necessary to shift the paper into a new course. So now I’m to attract contributors or get hold of a few articles by writers with some reputation. Go ahead and write…’

All this was curious. I began asking Kamenev what was being done in general and in which direction a ‘line’ was being defined in his party circles. What was Lenin thinking and writing? We strolled about the Catherine Hall for a long with Kamenev trying at some length to persuade me that his party was taking up or ready to take up a most ‘reasonable’ (from my point of view) position. This position, as he put it, wall close to that taken by the Soviet Zimmerwald centre [ie., Kautskyism], if not identical with it. Lenin? Lenin thought that up to now the revolution was being accomplished quite properly and that a bourgeois Government was now historically indispensable.

`Does that mean you are not going to overthrow the bourgeois Government yet and don’t insist on an immediate democratic regime?’ I tried to get this out of Kamenev, who was showing me what I thought important perspectives.

‘We here don’t insist on that, nor does Lenin over there. He writes that our immediate task now is—to organize and mobilize our forces.’

‘But what do you think about current foreign policy? What about an immediate peace?’

‘You know that for us the question cannot be put that way. Bolshevism has always maintained that the World War can ended by a world proletarian revolution. And as long as not taken place, as long as Russia continues the war, we are against any disorganization and for maintaining the front.’


[p. 257. This repeats the points made above, namely that Kamenev veered toward the Menshevik position on continuing the war.]

The sections of the [Congress of Soviet] Conference began to work on the morning of the 30th. 1 was forced into the agrarian section, which was full of nothing but soldiers. I left without entering into the useless wrangling.

Kamenev showed me a Bolshevik resolution on the war, which was of course doomed to defeat. It appeared to me that the Zimmerwaldites ought to vote for this resolution, and to do it to make clear the relative voting strength of the two sides. But there was a suspicious point in the resolution, to the effect that the imperialist war could be ended only with transfer of political power to the working class. Did this mean that the struggle for peace was not necessary at that moment? Or did it mean that it was necessary, but that therefore political power had to be taken into one’s own hands at once? Kamenev assured me that it meant neither the one nor the other. But he responded extremely evasively to the suggestion that this point be altered, and tried to eliminate the misunderstanding by remarks alone. Meanwhile everyone who had read this resolution maintained that the Bolsheviks were demanding political power for the working class.

Where did the truth lie? Kamenev, in giving a ‘benevolent’ interpretation of the resolution, was doubtless trying dutifully to retain in it the official Bolshevik idea: that the conclusion of the imperialist war was only possible by way of a Socialist revolution. But I also had no doubt that Kamenev didn’t sympathize with this official Bolshevik idea considered it unrealistic, and was trying to follow a line of struggle for peace in the concrete circumstances of the moment. All the actions of the then leader of the Bolshevik party had just this kind of `possibilist’, sometimes too moderate, character. His position was ambiguous, and not easy. He had his own views, and was working on Russian revolutionary soil. But—he was casting a ‘sideways’ look abroad, where they had their own views, which were not quite the same as his.

May 5, 2017

How the High Line benefits High Income New Yorkers

Filed under: New York,real estate — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

On April 21st I wrote a favorable review of “Citizen Jane”, a documentary about Jane Jacobs who defended NYC neighborhoods from Robert Moses’s invasive attempts to force expressways on the working class residents. I did have problems, however, not so much with the film but the producer’s ties to a project that smacked of Robert Moses’s pro-capitalist agenda:

Although I can recommend this documentary highly, I would be remiss if I did not mention that one of the producers is Robert Hammond, who is executive director of Friends of the High Line that spearheaded the reclamation of a 1.5 mile elevated rail line on New York’s West Side near Chelsea. Working on this project with Joshua David, the two received the Rockefeller Foundation’s Jane Jacobs Medal in 2010. The High Line has become a big tourist attraction and a magnet for restaurants and new apartment building construction on the West Side.

I doubt that Hammond and David would have turned down the award, but I just may have after seeing Rockefeller’s name attached to it. Last year I reviewed a film titled “The Neighborhood that Disappeared” that describes the demolition of a largely Italian working class neighborhood in Albany that Jane Jacobs would have cherished. It was a victim of the master plan to create Nelson Rockefeller’s Empire State Plaza, a monstrosity that left a permanent scar on the capital city even as it expedited automobile traffic. Tying Rockefeller’s name to Jane Jacobs is almost like tying the Koch brothers’ name to an award on environmental activism.

Furthermore, even though the High Line has succeeded in terms that Jane Jacobs might have approved, its obvious charms have not been of universal benefit to people living in Chelsea, not exactly a slum that was ripe for gentrification. By the time that work on the High Line began, it was already vying with Greenwich Village for its own handsome brownstones, adorable ethnic restaurants and gay-friendly vibe.

However, the High Line was key to Chelsea being transformed into one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods and a home to criminal oligarchs who have bought $15 million condos in the new high-rises that blight the neighborhood. I recommend “Class Divide”, an on-demand HBO documentary that I reviewed last April that identifies the High Line as a beachhead for the invasion of real estate sharks and the Russian, Chinese and Indian gangsters who now call Chelsea home. From the HBO website:

Avenues [a private school that caters to the sons and daughters of the rich] is just one example of the way the neighborhood has been dramatically transformed. The High Line, a once-abandoned elevated railroad track, was reborn and turned into a wildly popular public park in 2009. Attracting five million people a year, The High Line has transformed a once-gritty area into the hottest neighborhood in NYC’s high-end real-estate market. “Every building is trying to outdo each other,” explains Community Board Committee co-chair Joe Restuccia.

However, many buyers in this current wave of gentrification seem to have no desire to integrate into the established lower-income community. Almost 40% of high-end residences have been sold to foreign or anonymous clients, and the average rent for Chelsea apartments has risen almost ten times faster than Manhattan as a whole, ousting many who can’t afford to keep up. “I just don’t understand why the old can’t be with the new,” says Yasmin Rodriguez, a lifelong West Chelsea resident and parent who is rapidly being priced out of her own neighborhood. “I have so much history here.”

 


 

In the latest Village Voice, a newspaper that is becoming much more relevant lately because of an infusion of cash by an investor who remembers the old Voice fondly, there’s a fascinating article that discusses the High Line and Robert Hammond’s regrets about the project:

There is no better illustration of gilded, internet-age New York than the High Line.Anchored on the south by the relocated Whitney Museum and on the north by the high-rises of Hudson Yards, the elevated park sits at the center of a real estate frenzy that has uprooted earlier generations of gentrifiers, art galleries, and even the city’s sense of who should control public space.

The story of how we got here, however, has evolved over time. Before it opened with a series of ribbon-cuttings between 2009 and 2014, the High Line spent a decade in gestation, developing as the idea of a group of Chelsea residents, then spreading to the city’s gala-hopping elites, and eventually winning the embrace of the Bloomberg administration. During this era, much of the public discussion about the park was old-fashioned boosterism, gushing about its high-design, post-industrial aesthetic, its magnetic pull on tourists, and its role as lynchpin for the mushrooming art, restaurant, retail, and condominium scene in West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.

This type of cheerleading is epitomized by New York Post restaurant and real estate writer Steve Cuozzo, who earlier this year called the park a “masterpiece” and “true wonder of our age” that has enabled “limitless popular pleasure.” Anyone who has misgivings about the High Line, he said, implies “that the High Line is somehow a racist creation” and is sympathizing with “reactionary leftists who prefer the crime-and-decay-ridden New York of the 1980s.”

Inconveniently for Cuozzo, one person with second thoughts is Friends of the High Line co-founder Robert Hammond, who now thinks the High Line didn’t pay enough attention to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, particularly those in public housing next door to the park. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” he told CityLab in February. “Ultimately, we failed.”

Lately, Hammond has been seeking redemption, pushing other high-profile park projects around the country to bake equity into their decision-making processes. Friends of the High Line has also been trying to make up for lost time, launching arts and jobs initiatives with residents of nearby public housing. Danya Sherman, former director of public programs, education, and community engagement for Friends of the High Line, details these efforts in her contribution to Deconstructing the High Line, a series of essays by academics, architects, and those involved in the making of the elevated park.

Equity initiatives are worthwhile, but Hammond’s recent conversion and Sherman’s essay evoke a sinking feeling that these good intentions are simply too little, too late. Before the High Line proffered progressivism through its programming, other contributors to the book note, it cast cold, hard capitalism in concrete.

The Voice article refers to a CityLab article that also reviews Hammond’s misgivings about High Line, also worth reading.

 

THE SYRIAN CAUSE AND ANTI-IMPERIALISM

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Translated By: Yaaser ElZayyar

(Red Youth)(Red Youth)

image_pdfimage_print

In memory of Michel Seurat, our martyr.

I was in Istanbul for about ten days when I met a Turkish communist who explained to me that what was going on in Syria was nothing but an imperialist conspiracy against a progressive, anti-imperialist regime. The Turkish comrade’s talk contained no novel information or analytical spark that could suggest something useful about my country, and everything I tried to say seemed utterly useless. I was the Syrian who left his country for the first time at the age of fifty-two, only to be lectured about what was really happening there from someone who has probably only visited Syria a few times, if at all.

Incidents like this are repeated over and over in both the real and virtual worlds: a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.

There are articles, research papers, and books written by Westerner academics and journalists about Syria that do not refer to a single Syrian source–especially one that is opposed to the Assad regime. Syria seems to be an open book of a country; anyone with a passing interest knows the truth about it. They particularly know more than dissidents, whom they often call into question, practically continuing the negation of their existence which is already their fate in their homeland. Consequently, we are denied political agency in such a way that builds on the work of the Assad regime, which has, for two entire generations, stripped usof any political or intellectual merit in our own country. We are no longer relevant for our own cause. This standpoint applies to the global anti-imperialist left, to mainstream western-centrists, and of course to the right-wing.

The Western mainstream approaches Syria (and the Middle East) through one of three discourses: a geopolitical discourse, which focuses on Israeli security and prioritizes stability; a culturalist or civilizationalist discourse, which basically revolves around Islam, Islamists, Islamic terrorism and minority rights; and a human-rights discourse, which addresses Syrians as mere victims (detainees, torture victims, refugees, food needs, health services, etc.), entirely overlooking the political and social dimensions of our struggles. These three discourses have one thing in common: they are depopulated (Kelly Grotke), devoid of people, individuals, or groups. They are devoid of a sense of social life, of what people live and dream.

The first two discourses, the geopolitical and the culturalist, are shared by the Western right as well.

But what about the left? The central element in the definition of the anti-imperial left is imperialism and, of course, combatting it. Imperialist power is thought of as something that exists in large amounts in America and Europe. Elsewhere it is either nonexistent or present only in small amounts. In internationalist struggles, the most important cause is fighting against western imperialism. Secondary conflicts, negligible cause and vague local struggles should not be a source of distraction. This depopulated discourse, which has nothing to do with people’s lived experiences, and which demonstrates no need for knowledge about Syrians, has considered it unimportant to know more about the history of their local struggles.

The Palestinian cause, which was only discovered by most anti-imperialists during the 1990s, has paradoxically played a role in their hostility towards the Syrian cause. From their far-off, transcendent position in the imperialist metropoles, they have the general impression that Syria is against Israel, which occupies Syrian territory. Thus, if Syria is with Palestine and against Israel, it is against imperialism. At the end of the day, these comrades are with the Assadists, because Syria has been under the Assad family rule for nearly half a century. Roughly speaking, this is the core of the political line of thinking which can be called ivory-tower anti-imperialism. That Syrians have been subject to extreme Palestinization by a brutal, internal Israel, and that they are susceptible to political and physical annihilation, just like Palestinians, in fact lies outside the clueless, tasteless geopolitical approach of those detached anti-imperialists, who ignorantly bracket off politics, economics, culture, the social reality of the masses and the actual history of Syria.

This way of linking our conflict to one major global struggle, which is supposedly the only real one in the world, denies the autonomy of any other social and political struggle taking place in the world. Anti-imperialists, especially those living in the allegedly imperialist metropoles, are most qualified to tell the truth about all struggles. Those who are directly involved in this or that struggle hardly know what’s really going on – their knowledge is partial, “non-scientific”, if not outright reactionary.

During the Cold War, orthodox communists knew the real interests of the masses, as well as the ultimate course of history. This was sufficient reason for a communist worldview to be always in the right, without fail. But this position, which looks down on history, has placed itself in an overly exalted position with relation to the masses and their actual lives, and in relation to social and political battles on the ground. In fact, this position can be accurately described as imperialist: it expands at the expense of other conflicts, appropriates them for itself and shows little interest in listening to those involved or in learning anything about them. The distinguishing feature of most Western anti-imperialists is that they have nothing but vague impressions about the history of our country; they cannot possibly know anything about its potential adherence to –or noncompliance with– “the course of history.” This makes their meddling in our affairs an imperialist intervention in every sense of the word: interference from above; depriving us of the agency and capacity to represent our own cause; enacting a power relation in which we occupy the position of the weak who do not matter; and finally the complete absence of a sense of comradeship, solidarity, and partnership.

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Eugene V. Debs documentary to screen in NY on Monday, May 8th

Filed under: Film,socialism — louisproyect @ 4:24 pm

Yale Storm’s documentary “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs” will screen May 8 at 9pm as part of the Workers Unite Film Festival at Cinema Village located at 22 East 12th Street in the Village (NYC). Yale will be coming in to do a Q & A after the screening.

This is an amazing film that was shown at the Socially Relevant Film Festival in March on the same day as a blizzard unfortunately. I reviewed the film before the festival and consider it a must-see for people on the left. From my review:

Using the technique pioneered by Ken Burns but with much more political acumen, Yale Strom draws upon photos of the battling Pullman strikers that really capture the intensity of the struggle. As a popular leader of the strikers, Debs was well on his way to becoming the tribune of the entire working class.

Drawing upon interviews with leftwing labor historians, including Nick Salvatore—the author of a Debs biography, Strom documents the remarkable geographical reach of both the IWW and the Socialist Party that Debs helped build. Debs was a contributor to “Appeal to Reason”, a socialist magazine that had a circulation of over a half-million at its height. The magazine’s offices were in Girard, Kansas, a place we would now associate with Trump voters. Indeed, the IWW and the SP reached the most oppressed members of the working class (fruit pickers, longshoremen, miners, lumberjacks) in the boondocks. Oklahoma, a state most liberals would consider particularly retrograde, was fertile territory for the radical left at the turn of the 20th century.

Last Men in Aleppo

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:56 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 5, 2017

Winner of the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, “Last Men in Aleppo” opened yesterday for a week’s run at the Metrograph in New York. It will open on May 18 at Laemmle’s in Los Angeles, with a nationwide rollout and VOD to follow. Nominally covering the same terrain as the 41 minute “The White Helmets” that was voted the best short documentary by the Academy Awards, this is a much darker film reflecting the desperation of people facing the imminent collapse of a rebel-controlled area that might have contained 250,000 people. The film was directed by Firas Fiyyad who was in attendance for the Q&A at the Metrograph last night. He was jailed twice and tortured during the early days of the Syrian revolt. The guards told him: “You’ll have double the amount of torture because you’re a filmmaker.”

Fiyyad filmed in East Aleppo throughout 2015 and 2016 often facing the same risks as the White Helmets who were singled out for attack, just like the local hospitals. If the goal was total war to stamp out terrorism, why not snuff out those responsible for saving lives? If a three-year old might grow up to join al-Qaeda, isn’t it better to take preemptive action?

The film follows two White Helmets on their daily rounds. Khalid is a clean-shaven, chain-smoking bear of man with two young daughters he dotes on. Apparently he is one of the infidels that managed to avoid the jihadists in East Aleppo described by Charles Glass in a New York Review of Books blog: “Yet many Aleppines say that government control relieves them of the jihadists’ obsession with requiring men to grow beards and women to cover themselves, banning cigarettes, forcing them to pray, and other intrusions into their private lives.” Like many others who view Assad as a lesser evil to the “jihadists”, the former Newsweek journalist can be relied upon to bend the truth in the interests of the war on terror.

Khalid’s partner is the twenty-something Mahmoud, who has lied to his parents about his whereabouts. He reassured them that he is in Turkey but has remained in East Aleppo because he sees saving lives as his duty. Repeatedly, we see Khalid and Mahmoud digging people—both living and dead—out of rubble. Modest to a fault, Mahmoud does not want to come across as a hero. When he visits one of the people he saved, he sums up his feelings: “I didn’t like that, I’m not going to visit anyone again because I feel like this is showing off, showing these people that I saved their lives and I’m not like that.”

When they are not at work, they chat about their situation with a mixture of sardonic humor and gloomy resignation to their fate. Trying to figure out why they stay, Khalid volunteers this assessment: it is better to live under siege and face death than in a refugee camp. This does not stop him from imploring an unnamed man to help smuggle him and his family into Turkey. Ultimately, Fiyyad’s film is a portrait of men living on the edge rather than a paean to the Syrian revolution that many Syrians, including Khalid, consider a lost cause.

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May 4, 2017

A moment of truth on Democracy Now

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:43 pm

May 3, 2017

Neofascism in the White House?

Filed under: Fascism,Trump — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

Leftist analysis of the Trump presidency has ranged from those like Boris Kagarlitsky who believe that “Trump took to consistently fulfill everything that the Left in the US and Western Europe was talking about for a quarter century” to those who have seen him as the second coming of Adolf Hitler. Since Trump is such a mercurial figure, one day threatening to go to war with North Korea and the next saying that he’d like to meet with Kim Jong Un who he described as a “smart cookie”, developing a theory about “Trumpism” is like hitting a moving target.

I’ll give credit to John Bellamy Foster for trying to hit that target in “Neofascism in the White House”, a 15,000 word article that should be required reading since John Bellamy Foster is an important Marxist intellectual worth considering even when he is wrong. For Foster, the term neofascism is meant to convey the difference with Nazism or any of the other fascisms of the 1920s and 30s. Primarily, neofascism is marked by an absence of paramilitary violence in the streets, black shirts, brown shirts or Nazi Stormtroopers. The new fascism is what Bertram Gross called “Friendly Fascism” in a 1980 book. (Foster cites him approvingly).

Gross was a CUNY professor who held a number of government posts, including executive secretary of Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers. He had first advanced the notion of “friendly fascism” in a 1971 NY Times op-ed piece that sounded pretty much like the “new left” theories that were current back then largely under the influence of Herbert Marcuse:

Finally, direct repression would operate through, around, under and over the old constitutional procedures. The guiding principle—to be developed by an expanded Rand Corporation—would be to get a pound of terror from an ounce of schrecklichkeit [frightfulness]. This economizing would be facilitated by extensive use of indirect controls: welfare state benefits made conditional upon good behavior; credentialized meritocracy; accelerated consumerism; and market manipulation. Equally important would be extensive co‐optation to buy off the most intelligent leaders of dissident groups.

This polished and flexible form of public repression would need no charismatic dictator. It would require no one‐party rule, no mass fascist party, no glorification of the State, no dissolution of legislatures, no denial of reason. It would probably come slowly as a cancerous growth within and around the White House, the Pentagon, and the broader political establishment.

Accelerated consumerism? Extensive co-optation? Market manipulation? I don’t know quite how to put this but this “fascism” is not very neo. In fact, it describes the United States before Hitler was born.

Foster examines Hitler’s gleichschaltung, a term which meant “bringing into line” or—more concretely—the Nazification of the German state. This involved an assault on bourgeois democracy, from purging the universities and other dissident institutions such as the press and publishing houses to finally granting Hitler absolute power.

Will we see a Trumpist gleichschaltung? Foster admits that we will not see a repeat of the 1930s but warns about the “effective dissolution of the liberal-democratic order” and its replacement by the “alt-right”. However, this does not square with the unfolding events. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has replaced Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief adviser and his national security aide Sebastian Gorka is rumored to be fired soon over his alt-right connections. (Apparently, Foster must have written his article before the slid was greased for Bannon and Gorka, since he described them as prime movers in the Trump administration with no reference to their recent fall from grace.)

As each week passes by, the Trump administration is adopting the coloration of the Reagan administration with its decidedly non-populist “trickle down” economic policies and its heavily militarized foreign policy rather than anything ever proposed by the alt-right. This seems like Republican Party business as usual rather than anything “neofascist”.

Foster does not seem to connect Trump’s ideology—such as it is—with core Republican values, especially those of the Tea Party that now plays a dominant role. If Steve Bannon is Trump’s Joseph Goebbels, we must accept that some of his precepts are key to the White House’s neofascist program: the restoration of the “Judeo-Christian West” as the spiritual framework for a restored capitalism and the promotion of extreme ethno-nationalism targeting non-white immigrants. I am not sure if Foster watches much Fox-TV or listens to people like Michael Savage or Steve Deace on the radio, but this has been part of the core beliefs of the Republican Party for decades now. Ideologically, the only difference is opposition to “globalism” and a commitment to rebuilding the American economy through infrastructure projects like Hitler’s autobahn (or FDR’s public works projects for that matter.) But like much of Trump’s promises, these are empty. Jared Kushner came this close to concluding a deal that would have investors closely connected to the Chinese Communist Party pouring billions into his flagship property in New York. If that isn’t globalism, I don’t know what is. You can be sure that Trump’s “populism” was designed to win votes, not change society in the way that Tom Watson hoped.

Foster is rightfully concerned about Trump’s attempted ban on immigration from Muslim countries and his tongue-lashing of judges who overturned his order. We can be sure that Trump will fill vacancies in the Federal judiciary that reflect his own nativist agenda but that would have been true if his chief rival Ted Cruz had been elected President. This is how bourgeois democracy works, after all. Judges are appointed by the party in power. If Hillary Clinton had been elected President, she would have appointed people that continued Obama administration policies. By 2014 President Obama had deported over 2 million people – more in six years than all people deported between 1892 to 1997. Considering the onerous vetting restrictions imposed by Obama on immigrants from Syria, Somalia et al, there’s not much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans except the rhetoric.

As someone who rightfully earned the reputation as one of the most respected environmental scholars, you can understand why Foster would sound the alarm over Trump’s assault on climate change accords, his appointment of a man to lead the EPA who has a record of fighting its rulings, and opening up public land to energy exploration. But this is Republican Party policy. If Trump had a heart attack tomorrow, could we expect Mike Pence to retreat on any of these measures? Is it possible that neofascism is not Trump/Bannon but the Koch brothers, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Ann Coulter and all the other creeps that have been pushing us back to the 1890s?

Considering the role of fascism as the last resort of the bourgeoisie against proletarian revolution, it is puzzling that Foster devotes only 6 sentences to the trade unions. While he is correct in pointing out that a “right to work” law is in the works, he neglects to mention that Trump has been lining up support from the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. Rich Trumka was not only pleased with Trump’s push for pipelines and stepped up drilling; he also saw eye to eye on immigration: “Will we partner with him to try to rewrite the immigration rules of the country? Absolutely because those will help workers, it will decrease the imbalance between corporate America and workers.”

Does this mean that the American working class is becoming part of this neofascist danger? Foster alluded to Hitler drawing “on a minority of the working class, disproportionately represented by more privileged blue-collar workers.” The problem is that a fascist movement, either “old school” or neo, is not really needed in the USA. Workers are not revolutionary. They are not even liberal in the sense of supporting affirmative action, gay rights, or other issues that were supposedly the cause of Hillary Clinton’s defeat. They tend to be for benefits like Medicare, Social Security and unemployment insurance but there is little indication that the Republicans intend to gut these programs, mainly because there is no need for that presently. If unemployment went up to 30 percent as was the case in the Weimar Republic and Trump slashed unemployment benefits in half, maybe then you’d find truck drivers or construction workers discussing Chris Hedges’s latest column. But American capitalism has a lot more wiggle room, even with competition from China.

Foster calls attention to Trump’s war on the media, the last battle being his baiting of John Dickerson on “Face the Nation”, a show he called “Deface the Nation” to the interviewer’s face. There might be a war being fought by Trump but there are very few victories so far. The NY Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and ten thousand websites continue to pillory the White House with no letting up. If you want to see how a press can be muted, you need to study Turkey, Russia or China where reporters and bloggers are routinely harassed, arrested or even killed. Trump will not silence the media by calling it “fake”. He will only succeed by sending the cops into their offices and hauling the staff off to jail where they will be tortured or killed. That is how fascism operates, not by calling names. Nixon was just as openly hostile to the press as Trump but that did not shut them up. (Then again, Nixon was supposed to be Adolf Hitler for much of the left in the 1970s.)

As someone who has been on the left since 1967, I have become somewhat inured to warnings about Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and now Trump posing a fascist threat. Unless you understand fascism, either old or neo, as dictatorship, you are not making much sense. Fascism does not operate by “indirect controls” as Bertram Gross put it. It operates through the truncheon, the kangaroo court, the suspension of constitutional rights and the total control over society by a single party whose Bonapartist ruler has absolute power.

There is zero possibility of Trump gaining such power over the next four years since there is no need for it. Even though Trump is a clumsy and self-defeating chief executive, he has control over Congress and likely the Supreme Court before long. The Democrats might defy him on key legislation but will likely go along with a “compromise” just the way they did when Ronald Reagan had meetings with Tip O’Neill over key legislation. It will be the same old shit for the next four years.

Timothy Snyder, an expert on totalitarian societies at least by academic standards, was interviewed by Salon on May first in an article warning that Trump “will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy”. As most of you know, Salon has the same laser-like focus on Trump as MSNBC. Why? Because it is commercially advantageous.

The interview was prompted by Snyder’s new book titled “On Tyranny” that warns of the possibility of Trump using the next big terrorist attack as a Reichstag fire type incident to stage a coup. To be consistent, Snyder would have to say that if such a coup took place, the Connecticut state troopers and the FBI would come to Yale University and arrest him for subversive activities. Additionally, as is happening in Turkey today, every liberal or radical professor would have to be fired if they aren’t arrested and replaced by other professors who were loyal to the dictatorship’s gleichschaltung. Are there enough adjuncts available to fill their shoes, even if in the unlikely event that they could be relied upon to prepare classes based on the writings of Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos? Can you imagine that you were a doctor, lawyer or investment adviser spending $50,000 per year to send your kid to school where they would come out with a diploma that was worth about as much as the paper it was written on? They wanted their kid to be taught by Timothy Snyder, an academic superstar like Paul Krugman, not somebody with a degree from Oral Roberts University. And for what? Because someone set off a bomb in Madison Square Garden during a Knicks game or used an AK-47 on crowds watching the fireworks on July 4th? I don’t think so.

My recommendation for people believing such a thing as fascism or a coup happening in the USA over the next four years is to have a drink of cold water and read Corey Robin’s article in yesterday’s Guardian titled “Think Trump is an authoritarian? Look at his actions, not his words”. It is really quite astute:

Trump, in other words, has failed to fill 85% of the positions in the executive branch that he needs to fill in order to run the government to his specifications. It’s a strange kind of authoritarian who fails, as the first order of business, to seize control of the state apparatus: not because there’s been pushback from the Senate but because, in most instances, he hasn’t even tried.

Ah, Trump’s liberal and left critics will respond, but that failure to fill key positions is all part of the White House’s master plan. Back in February, Steve Bannon, Trump’s top strategist whose star lately has fallen, claimed that the administration’s goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative state”. As Bannon made clear, that was just a fancy way of describing the longstanding Republican goal of gutting rules and regulations the business class hates. What better way to do that than simply not staffing the agencies that are tasked with enforcing those rules and regulations?

There are two problems with this theory. First, Trump has failed to fill positions in departments and agencies he actually wishes to empower and expand. He’s only filled one out of 53 positions in the Pentagon, two out of 14 in the Department of Homeland Security, one out of seven positions in the intelligence agencies, one of out 28 positions in the treasury department, and almost none of the key positions in the justice department having to do with terrorism, drug crime prosecution and the like.

Second, many of those positions are not empty. Until Trump appoints someone to fill them, they will remain mostly occupied by holdovers from the Obama administration – who will continue to enforce the thousands of rules and regulations Obama passed and Trump hates.

Though Trump has had limited success overturning some of Obama’s rules through an obscure piece of legislation, the real work of deregulation and undoing Obama-era rules will require a much heavier lift that Trump is not yet in a position to execute.

Despite the fact that Trump, whose party is in control of all the elected branches of the federal government, has lost virtually every legislative battle he’s waged, and backed down from virtually every bluff he’s made, the faith in Trump’s power – not in his probity or purposes but in his ability to dominate the political scene – dies hard. And nowhere harder, it seems, than on the left.

 

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