Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 18, 2017

Abacus: Too Small to Jail

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:53 pm

Opening tomorrow at the IFC Center in NYC, “Abacus: Too Small to Jail” is a documentary that chronicles the five year legal struggle of the founder, top officers (his daughters) and lower-level staff to defend themselves against District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. (the son of Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State) who charged them with bank fraud felonies having absolutely no merit.

The Abacus Federal Savings Bank was a mom-and-pop operation located on the Bowery in Chinatown between a herb medication shop and a noodle parlor. It was founded by lawyer and real estate investor Thomas Sung in 1985 to meet the needs of the immigrant community that distrusted the big banks that operated in Chinatown. Even if they had Chinese tellers and managers, it was nearly impossible for an immigrant to get a loan or a mortgage.

Things were going very well for the bank until 2009 (it had expanded to six branches) when a loan officer ripped off a husband and wife looking to buy their first home. He conned them into giving him $2500 as a way of lubricating the deal and falsified the papers needed for the closing. The couple lost their $72,000 deposit, more than two years salary. They reported the theft to the police, naming the loan officer as the culprit. By then, Thomas Sung had fired the loan officer, opened up an internal investigation and reported the findings to the police and federal authorities.

Normally, this would have not been treated as a criminal case and the bank would have offered restitution to the couple but that would not satisfy Cyrus Vance Jr. Instead he decided to prosecute the bank, two of its supervisors, and nine of its former employees on a hundred-and-eighty-four-count indictment that included charges of residential-mortgage fraud, falsification of business records, and conspiracy. The Abacus employees, all Chinese-American, were paraded through the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, handcuffed together, as if they were members of a drug cartel. Some faced a maximum sentence of twenty-five years in prison.

Could it not be more obvious that they were scapegoats in a case that was in sharp contrast to Citibank, Chase Manhattan and Bank America not suffering a single arrest even though trillions of dollars were lost because of fraud?

It turned out that with only a handful of exceptions, everybody who applied for a loan at Abacus was treated fairly. The problem for the bank is that many of the loan applications seemed fishy. It was not unusual for someone that declared $25,000 income on their tax returns would be eligible for an $800,000 mortgage. The prosecution made the case that the bank was committing fraud in the same way that the banks were pushing low interest loans to low-income people whose mortgages were collateralized and packaged as very secure investments. What the defense attorney attempted to show was that the Chinatown bank customer operated in a cash economy and that the reported income did not reflect their true wealth. When one defendant was asked how they knew the customer would be able to pay off the mortgage, he replied that he eats at his restaurant every week and knows that he was very solvent.

While most of the film examines the hypocrisy of the prosecutors against the backdrop of Chinese immigrant culture, the most appealing part of the film was the unintentional comedy of bank CEO Thomas Sung and his three daughters who were constantly bickering with their unflappable father.

The film continually refers back to the Frank Capra chestnut “It’s a Wonderful Life” that has a plot similar to this documentary. I enjoyed the documentary much more.

May 17, 2017

Donald Trump, National Bolshevism and the radical deficit

Filed under: Fascism,Trump — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

Three years ago I wrote an article titled “National Bolshevism rides again” that called attention to Golden Dawn’s support for Russia against Euromaidan that sounded exactly like the sort of thing written by Mike Whitney: “Ukraine is Washington’s pretext for a conflict with Russia. The threat of conflict is evident from the flood of propaganda in the Zionist media. Putin is demonized daily as Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi were earlier, while known Zionist newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times, present daily ‘evidence’ Russian troops are ready to invade Ukraine. The only things missing are the weapons of mass destruction in order to have a complete repeat.”

Little did I suspect that within three years, an American version of Golden Dawn would be saying the same thing. On May 13th, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer led a small demonstration protesting the removal of a statue honoring Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Among the chants heard from the mouths of these fascists (I use the word advisedly) was “Blood and soil” and “Russia is our friend”.

If “Russia is our friend”, it is understandable why Stephen F. Cohen would tell Tucker Carlson, Bill O’Reilly’s replacement at Fox News, that the “Assault on Trump is [the] greatest threat to our country”. Like Cohen, Spencer considers the liberal onslaught on Trump to be the main danger to the USA. In a comment on Trump’s divulging classified information to the Russians, Spencer used words that could have come out of Cohen’s mouth: “This is only a scandal in the minds of those who haven’t heard that the Cold War is over.”

Spencer is a fairly crafty operator, looking to speak out of both sides of his mouth. In addition to paying reverence to Robert E. Lee, he also has good things to say about Karl Marx, on May Day no less:

I am not the only person who has been noticing this development. Sukant Chandan, who unlike me is a major supporter of Bashar al-Assad, began to speak out largely because of the support of the ultraright for Brexit. The nativism that defines UKIP, the Trump administration and other ultraright parties that have been coming together in an informal global movement taking inspiration from the Kremlin is certainly going to antagonize an Indian immigrant in England where a dark skin is an open invitation to a beating. On Facebook, Chandan wrote:

Here I argue in 2mins that there are many who advocated on Press TV and RT etc years that Trump would be ‘better’ than Hilary, that these people invited the man who bombed Syria and Afghanistan, humiliated Russia, went to the brink of war with Korea and China, that these people should either apologise publicly and conduct some serious self critique (I made a wrong analysis on Obama, have apologised for that many times and critically self analysed a lot publicly for years), or they should be chased out of our circles and all platforms should be taken away from them. They advocated for the guy who bombed two of our homelands and threatened total war against China and Korea. These people are mainly those organised around far-right/alt-right/fascist circles and those collaborating with them around things like: Centre for Syncretic Studies (and all individuals and organisations involved, which is easily found), Katehon, New Resistance, The Duran, Saker, Fort Russ, 21st Century Wire, Sputnik, and others. These are forces who are directly in alliance with blatant neo-Nazi and western far right and openly fascist forces. The rise of fascist oriented forces and leaders like Trump are *not* friends of ours but fascist imperialist enemies of our peoples.

Of the websites called out by Chandan, I am familiar with The Duran, Saker, the aptly named Fort Russ, 21st Century Wire and Sputnik. But who were the others?

As its name implies, the rather academic sounding Centre for Syncretic Studies attempts to bring together (syncretize) “various ideologies which originate from across the entire spectrum” and overlaps ideologically and personnel-wise with Katehon. Katehon is likely the same word as Katechon, a term found in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 that refers to the apocalypse.

Essentially, both think-tanks are devoted to the thinking of Aleksandr Dugin, a latter-day National Bolshevik. Katehon was founded by Konstantin Malofeev, who is the CEO of Marshall Capital Partners, a private equity firm. Malofeev is a devout Russian Orthodox believer and has also been accused of defrauding the state-owned bank VTB of $200 million. I suppose in this day and age, the two things go together. You can find a typical Katehon article by Dugin titled “Russian Geopolitician: Trump Is Real America” whose title speaks for itself. Speaking for Spencer and countless other rightwing scumbags, Dugin wrote:

Thus, there is Donald Trump, who is tough, rough, says what he thinks, rude, emotional and, apparently, candid. The fact that he is a billionaire doesn’t matter. He is different. He is an extremely successful ordinary American. He is crude America, without gloss and the globalist elite. He is sometimes disgusting and violent, but he is what he is. It is true America.

I should add that the words globalism and globalist have become signifiers for the alt-right. The next time you hear someone using them, run the opposite direction as fast as your feet can carry you.

Moving right along, we come to New Resistance that is based in the USA as opposed to the two Russian-based groups discussed above. The New Resistance appears to be some sort of left group whose views are expressed at Open Revolt!, a blog with little impact according to Alexa that ranks it at 1,897,874 globally. (For comparison’s sake, my blog is ranked 383,286.)

The most recent post to Open Revolt is from February 22nd and titled “New Resistance on Alex Jones, Alexander Dugin and Infowars” that ties it to Dugin ideologically:

Alex Jones gets more than 50 million views at Infowars a week. Last night I watched his feature with Alexandr Dugin and I was expecting to be very critical of it. For once, I was pleasantly surprised. Alex Jones couldn’t have been more respectful and fair, treating Comrade Dugin with the respect he has earned and deserves. He also made a point of showing screenshots of Katehon.com and running the Katehon web address in text beneath Dugin’s name. Many of you probably know Katehon is a Traditionalist and anti-globalist project and some of the major people involved with the site are also part of New Resistance.

That’s a huge breakthrough moment.

Thanks to Alex Jones potentially tens of millions of American eyes are being opened to Alexander Dugin and to the Fourth Political Theory in an honest way. That’s totally jaw dropping.

Notwithstanding the shout-out to Dugin, Open Revolt does not seem nearly as bad as Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute. In fact, the New Resistance manifesto sounds as good as the one Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in 1848:

We believe that the capitalist system we have today needs to be replaced by something that truly fosters a civilized, sustainable & just society, where economics is subordinated to the social good. NEW RESISTANCE, therefore, supports the following policies:

1) the abolition of wage slavery and landlordism;

2) the distribution of land (either a certain acreage or as apartment square feet) to all citizens and making it non-transferable, thus avoiding accumulation into the hands of a privileged few;

3) some sort of guaranteed annual income & humane social safety net;

4) free universal health care (medicine and related fields should be a calling, NOT a business);

5) economic enterprises larger or more complex than a small family business or farm should be self-managed by workers, via workers’ councils.

Of course, you have to read the fine print:

Like the Black, American Indian and Chicano nationalists, NEW RESISTANCE is a movement geared towards National Liberation. Our people, as we define them, are the “white” American working classes, in which we include the urban proletariat, the rural poor, those unemployed or under-employed (“precarious labor”), as well as displaced members of the middle class. We use the term “white” reluctantly to denote the vast pool of Americans of European descent and those who adopt the cultural mores of “white America”.

This is just a soft sell version of what David Duke has been peddling for decades.

Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 3.05.03 PM

James Porazzo

New Resistance was founded by James Porazzo, a Boston man who was formerly involved with the American Front, a skinhead group that worked closely with Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance and that eventually came to espouse The Third Position, which “syncretizes” racial separatism and socialism. Like Richard Spencer, Porazzo figured out that socialism was not a scare word any more and might even help him recruit new members.

Indeed, Porazzo seems like a natural ally to all those people in the “anti-imperialist” camp. He links to a Bashar al-Assad interview and crossposts Eva Gollinger’s tribute to Hugo Chavez. Interviewed at the Center for Syncretic Studies, Porazzo can barely be distinguished from James Petras (maybe that’s the problem):

Capitalism or institutionalized looting, selfishness and greed are a kind of religion for the pigs that govern the United States. The Democratic and Republican parties are united in this, just showing different shades of the same disease.  Most of the right-wing opposition here, including the reactionary extreme right, are infected by this disease. It can be seen from the fact that hardly wait to cast aspersions onto any other organization with a revolutionary social program, such as as ours.

For us, the absolute enemy is the cult of the golden calf.  We are open to discuss common goals with all genuine anti-capitalists. The struggle against capitalism must always be a priority.

The rebirth of National Bolshevism is something to contend with. The original version first came to my attention writing about the Comintern and the German revolution of the early 20s. Ruth Fischer, an ultraleft and half-Jewish member of the German CP back then, gave a speech that included these words that sound even worse than anything Porazzo might come up with:

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.

Porazzo has paid close attention to the attempts of the Red-Brown synthesis in the 1920s that has now been given new life by Aleksandr Dugin. Not only has he crossposted Dugin’s articles, he has paid tribute to some obscure figures such as Ernst Niekisch. Starting off as a Communist during Weimar, Niekisch eventually broke with Marxism and developed the official National Bolshevik theory that combined elements of German nationalism and admiration for Josef Stalin, perhaps not that much of a contradiction. He was read by the Nazi “left”, including Gregor Strasser and Ernst Rohm.

I have no idea how much influence Porazzo has but Richard Spencer certainly has plenty. The fact that Spencer has lately been toasting Karl Marx might indicate that this is the direction the alt-right will be taking. Unlike the original National Bolshevism, there is not much support for a rebirth that is a carbon-copy of the original. Why? Because there is no longer a USSR. Vladimir Putin has said that Lenin was the worst thing that happened to Russia, so there’s not much of a “left” to the Kremlin nowadays. Mainly, Putin represents a left to people like Stephen F. Cohen, Robert Parry, James Petras and Diana Johnstone because he is despised by liberal politicians and journalists just as indicated in the Dugin picture at the top of the article. I doubt that any of these people, especially Petras and Johnstone, give a hoot about Spencer and Porazzo’s admiration for Assad and Putin. All that matters to them is salvaging the USA-Russia détente. This is a intellectual and political deficit of biblical proportions.

There’s a dirty little secret I’d like to share with you. Many on the left who are repulsed by people like Richard Spencer and James Porazzo are equally repulsed by the liberal onslaught against Trump for motives lodged in their subconscious. Since they share Spencer and Porazzo’s views on Syria and Ukraine, there is a natural tendency to see Trump as an obstacle to a “neocon” war against the “axis of resistance” even if they are barely aware of it.

What accounts for this? I would describe it as a retreat from class. Twenty years ago, Marxists were up in arms over how postmodernism was subordinating class criteria as part of a new methodology that linked Marx to the Enlightenment. “Identity Politics”, especially in the academy, became a substitute. To a large extent, the rise of postmodernism was related to changes in the capitalist economy such as the growth of multinationals, financialization, post-Fordism, etc. Leaving aside the merits of this analysis, it can be said that classical Marxism was bound to undergo a decline in the aftermath of the collapse of official Communism and the rapid expansion of the capitalist economy in the 1980s and 90s.

So is the current brand of “anti-imperialism”, with its lockstep adherence to the Kremlin’s talking points, also a reaction to changes in world capitalism? Undoubtedly, the stagnation that set in toward the late 90s and that only deepened after the 2007 meltdown have contributed to a sense of futility over capitalist growth. For many whose radicalism is paper-thin (i.e., most Noam Chomsky readers), the unit of analysis has become the nation-state rather than class. Why bother to interrogate class relations in Syria when the CIA has been sending rebels light weapons, after all? (The emphasis on light, of course.)

Into this stagnant ideological pool, it becomes possible for an American version of Golden Dawn to take root. Does this mean that fascism is on the agenda? I don’t think so. The main role of groups led by Spencer or Porazzo is to act as shock troops that are meant to embolden backward members of the working class and the petty-bourgeoisie to take their own actions in a thousand different ways, from insulting a woman wearing a hijab or a Black person walking in a white neighborhood. In other words, they will be trying to create the same climate of fear that exists in Europe even though they are not ready to begin attacking the picket lines of strikers on the rare occasions they materialize.

As was the case in the early Weimar Republic, the alt-right will be held in reserve. They can do damage now but not constitute an immediate threat to the American ruling class that much prefers bourgeois democracy, especially since it relies on the less expensive and less risky ideological hegemony rather than the truncheon.

May 15, 2017

Will someone please escort Lars Lih out of the history tunnel?

Filed under: Lenin,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

Chiang Kai-Shek, an honorary member of the Comintern upon Stalin’s urging

In 2011, Lars Lih wrote an article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” for Russian History whose thesis has been repeated ceaselessly, the latest iteration appearing on the Jacobin website. Essentially, they all argue in favor of the superiority of “Old Bolshevism” over Trotsky’s version of what took place between March and October 1917, even when Trotsky is not mentioned. Lih has a particular affinity for Lev Kamenev even though Stalin is a close runner-up for the title of Old Bolshevik supremo. Is the prodigious amount of prose advanced on behalf of Kamenev and Stalin meant to win people over? I myself get annoyed by repetition, especially those Trivago ads. Lately Lih has been joined by Eric Blanc, a young graduate student who pays lip-service to Trotsky but with little insights into the broader contours of a debate that did not end in October 1917. Like Lih, he seems stuck in a narrow historical framework that comes to an end in October 1917 or maybe as late as 1924.

Indeed, the basic problem with the Lih/Blanc methodology is that it operates in a historical tunnel. At least Blanc refers his readers to the 1924 conference that pitted Trotsky against his ideological opponents (see Frederick Corney, Trotsky’s Challenge: the “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution) but that discussion operated within the parameters of the tunnel. If Kamenev was correct that the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was “fully and completely realized in the Russian revolution”, wouldn’t it make sense that it would also apply to China, another country that had a Communist Party under the complete control of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev in the very year that the 1924 conference took place and whose fate in the next three years would be sealed by the Triumvirate’s politics? Was there any reason to think that the “old Bolsheviks” had lost the old magic when it came to China? What were the implications of applying what worked in 1917 to China where the Kuomintang (KMT) was hailed by Kamenev and company as a revolutionary party, so much so that it was accepted as a sister party of the Comintern and its Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek as an honorary member? Or that the Communist Party of China was directed to work within the KMT and forbidden to leave even after Chiang Kai-Shek began to slaughter its members?

Shanghai, 1927: Worker beheaded by a soldier under the command of an honorary Comintern member

The consequences of forcing Chinese Marxists to subordinate themselves to the KMT was disastrous. On March 21-22 1927, Communists acting independently of the Kremlin seized control of Shanghai. On April 9th, Chiang moved to purge the Communists from the KMT and retake control of Shanghai. More than 1,000 Communists were arrested, 300 were executed and another 5,000 went missing. Since the CP was not very large to begin within, this essentially dealt it a death-blow. In “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution”, a book I read 45 years ago or so, Harold Isaacs described what took place:

At noon on April 13 the workers gathered at a mass meeting on Chinyuen Road, Chapei. Resolutions were passed demanding the return of the seized arms, the punishment of the union wreckers and protection for the General Labour Union. A petition was drawn up embodying these points and a procession was formed to march down to Second Division headquarters to present it to General Chow Feng-chi. Women and children joined. Not a man marching bore arms. They swung into Paoshan Road under a pouring rain. As they came abreast of San Teh Terrace, a short distance from the military headquarters, machine-gunners waiting for them there opened fire. Lead spouted into the thick crowd from both sides of the street. Men, women, and children dropped screaming into the mud. The crowd broke up into mad flight. Guns continued streaming fire into the backs of the fleeing workers. The muddy rain water coursing down ruts in the streets ran red.

In 1927, the USSR was guided by the policies of Stalin and Bukharin who constituted a rightwing bloc that adapted to the NEP agrarian bourgeoisie at home and the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” abroad. A month after this disaster, Stalin showed no signs of understanding what went wrong. In a speech, he stated his opposition to the creation of Soviets in China, as advocated by Trotsky, and claimed that the Kuomintang was the “center of the bourgeois democratic revolutionary movement.”

By 1927, Trotsky had been joined by Kamenev and Zinoviev in the Joint Opposition. Two years earlier they had broken with Stalin and Bukharin over Socialism in One Country and formed the New Opposition that operated independently of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. One year later their faction united with Trotsky’s. While they agreed on the need for world revolution theoretically, Kamenev and Zinoviev supported the pro-KMT policy that objectively undermined exactly that goal. This was understandable since they remained wedded to the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In fact, Zinoviev was probably the main architect of the policy in China as Comintern chief. When Trotsky advocated making the China debacle the focus of the attack on Stalin, he was opposed not only by the two old Bolsheviks but many of his own supporters. Part of the problem was Trotsky’s collaboration with Zinoviev in building an alliance with the KMT as part of an attempt to break out of the USSR’s isolation just as was the case with its overtures to Mustafa Kemal. But from the very beginning Trotsky opposed the CP functioning as part of the KMT. He said you can have diplomatic relations with a country at the same time you are trying to overthrow its capitalist government. That in fact is exactly how capitalist states enter into diplomatic alliances with workers states, if you recall the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Stalin and Bukharin defended their policy as adhering to Leninist orthodoxy. China needed to carry out a bourgeois-democratic revolution in order to cleanse the nation’s Augean stables of feudal property relations. Once that was accomplished, they could go on to the socialist phase. Of course, Lenin abandoned such a schema in 1917 despite what Lars Lih thinks.

On April 12th, on the very day that working-class blood flowed in the streets of Shanghai, Pravda wrote an unctuous eulogy to the KMT. Can you guess who the author was? No, it was not Stalin or Bukharin although it might have been. It was Alexandr Martinov, who had been a rightwing Menshevik for 20 years before joining the Russian CP after the civil war, and who was now a leading light of the Comintern.

Martinov must have figured out that Stalin’s party was well on the way of adopting his shitty politics when he joined. Despite their constant baiting of Trotsky as a Menshevik, people like Kamenev and Stalin had a real affinity for stagist politics. Keep in mind what leading Menshevik Sukhanov wrote:

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.

Possibilism describes Kamenev in 1917. It also describes him throughout the 1920s. The old Bolsheviks were marked by possibilism, another word for opportunism. In my view, all of these people were flawed: Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin, Bukharin and even Trotsky. There is much you can learn from the last two I named but all the rest are not worth bothering with despite Lih’s foolish attempt to elevate them to a status they hardly deserve. As I have written elsewhere, Zinoviev’s interference in the German revolution of the early 20s helped to prevent it from succeeding. I also faulted Lenin and Trotsky in my account of their intervention, demonstrating that I have no use for empty idolatry

The debate that broke out over the Lessons of October in 1924 never really came to an end. Within three years they reemerged over how to assess the Chinese disaster. For a presentation in line with Lars Lih’s encomiums to old Bolshevism, I recommend Josef Stalin’s “Questions of the Chinese Revolution” that appeared in Pravda.

Stalin describes two phases of the Chinese revolution. In the first, “the national army was approaching the Yangtse and scoring victory after victory, but a powerful movement of the workers and peasants had not yet unfolded—the national bourgeoisie (not the compradors) sided with the revolution. It was the revolution of a united all-national front.”

Of course, this very army scored a most powerful victory in April 1927 when it massacred trade unionists in Shanghai. Obviously Stalin had to take account of this but not to the point of giving up on the KMT. In the second phase, after Chiang Kai-Shek had revealed himself as a counter-revolutionary, it devolved upon “the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan” to become the “organ of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” How nice of Stalin to stand up for Leninist orthodoxy even after the head of the KMT in Wuhan had broken with the Communists and realigned with the blood-stained Chiang. Isaacs reports on the Wuhan massacre that followed in the footsteps of Shanghai being carried out once again by someone to whom Stalin had given his blessings:

The military authorities proceeded with the systematic destruction of the trade unions. The Hankow Garrison Headquarters issued a ban on strikes. Between July 14 and 19 soldiers were “billeted” on the premises of twenty-five unions whose archives and effects were confiscated. Simultaneously throughout Honan province Feng Yu-hsiang was conducting a similar drive. “In the last few weeks the Chinese labour movement in the territory of the Wuhan Government has lived through a period of the most brazen reaction. . . . The military . . . have carried out such enormous work of destruction directed against the mass organizations . . . that it will require a very long period and gigantic energy to make good the losses and to enable the trade unions to resume their normal functions,” reported the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat.

It makes sense to conclude this article with an excerpt from Trotsky’s reply to Stalin that takes a close look at the aforementioned Martinov. It encapsulates the differences between Lars Lih and revolutionary socialism, even if he lacks the ability to understand them.

The School of Martynov in the Chinese Question

The official leadership of the Chinese revolution has been oriented all this time on a “general national united front” or on the “bloc of four classes” (cf. the report of Bukharin; the leader in the Communist International, no.11; the unpublished speech by Stalin to the Moscow functionaries on April 5, 1927; the article by Martynov in Pravda on April 10; the leader in Pravda of March 16; the speech by comrade Kalinin in Izvestia of March 6, 1927; the speech by comrade Rudzutak in Pravda of March 9, 1927; etc., etc.). Matters had gone so far on this track, that on the eve of Chiang Kai-shek’s coup d’état, Pravda, in order to expose the Opposition, proclaimed that revolutionary China was not being ruled by a bourgeois government but by a “government of the bloc of four classes”.

The philosophy of Martynov, which has the sorry courage to carry all the mistakes of Stalin and Bukharin in the questions of Chinese policy to their logical conclusion, does not meet a trace of objection. Yet it is tantamount to trampling under foot the fundamental principles of Marxism. It reproduces the crudest features of Russian and international Menshevism, applied to the conditions of the Chinese revolution. Not for nothing does the present leader of the Mensheviks, Dan, write in the last number of Sotsialisticheski Vestnik:

In principle the Bolsheviks were also for retaining the ‘united front’ in the Chinese revolution up to the completion of the task of national liberation. On April 10, Martynov, in Pravda, most effectively and despite the obligatory abuse of the Social Democrats, in a quite ‘Menshevik manner’ showed the ‘Left’ Oppositionist Radek the correctness of the official position which insists on the necessity of retaining the ‘bloc of four classes’, on not hastening to overthrow the coalition government in which the workers sit side by side with the big bourgeoisie, not to impose ‘socialist tasks’ upon it prematurely.

Everyone who knows the history of the struggle of Bolshevism against Menshevism, particularly in the question of relations to the liberal bourgeoisie, must acknowledge that Dan’s approval of the “rational principles” of the Martynov school is not accidental, but follows with perfect legitimacy. It is only unnatural that this school should raise its voice with impunity in the ranks of the Comintern.

The old Menshevik tactic of 1905 to 1917, which was crushed under foot by the march of events, is now transferred to China by the Martynov school, much the same as capitalist trade dumps its most inferior merchandise, which finds no market in the mother country, into the colonies. The merchandise has not even been renovated. The arguments are the same, letter for letter, as they were twenty years ago. Only, where formerly the word autocracy stood, the word imperialism has been substituted for it in the text. Naturally, British imperialism is different from autocracy. But the Menshevik reference to it does not differ in the slightest from its reference to autocracy. The struggle against foreign imperialism is as much a class struggle as the struggle against autocracy. That it cannot be exorcized by the idea of the national united front, is far too eloquently proved by the bloody April events, a direct consequence of the policy of the bloc of four classes.

May 14, 2017

Insect men

Filed under: humor — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

Tobey Maguire, in performance as Spiderman

gregor samsa copy

Ben Norton, master of political metamorphosis, in performance as Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”

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.

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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)

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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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