Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 30, 2004

On Tariq Ali’s Support for John Kerry

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:46 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 30, 2004

Apparently Tariq Ali is on some kind of tour in the USA right now. In a radio interview with Doug Henwood on Oct. 28, he stated that he is advising his audiences to turn out the vote for John Kerry next Tuesday. He also used this interview as an opportunity to mock Ralph Nader and his supporters and once again, as he did in his last interview with Henwood, to speak as an emissary of the Third World. In this capacity, he assured his listeners that the Third World demands a vote for Kerry on Nov. 2nd.

For those on Marxmail who have never stumbled across the name Tariq Ali before, a few words of introduction might be in order. Ali was one of a group of intellectuals who joined the British section of the Fourth International in the late 1960s. Along with Robin Blackburn, Perry Anderson and other luminaries around the New Left Review, they were impressed with the late Belgian economist and Trotskyist leader Ernest Mandel. As the 1960s radicalization began to ebb, all of them abandoned organized revolutionary politics and devoted themselves to academic or literary careers. Although they never disavowed Marxism, there has been a certain softening of ideology–a kind of intellectual middle-age spread so to speak.

For those of us who are accustomed to the firebrand image of Tariq Ali in his youth (his memoir was titled “Street Fighting Man”), this turn toward mealy-mouthed Democratic Party opportunism after the fashion of Earl Browder will come as a disappointment. However, it does not come out of the blue. Several years ago, Perry Anderson of the New Left Review announced that the journal would be dispensing with illusory prospects about revolution and focus on controversies within the academy, although he didn’t exactly put it in these terms (I do, however). Boris Kargalitsky wrote an angry attack on this turn, describing Perry Anderson as a “sophisticated British gentleman, [who] sits in his cosy office at no. 6 Meard Street and limply discusses the collapse of the left project.”

In an elegant but patronizing reply to Kargalitsky, Tariq Ali conveyed the same mood of resignation that Perry Anderson must have felt: “The collapse of all systemic alternatives is plainly visible. Seattle was extremely invigorating, but neither that nor the strike-wave in France amounts to a fundamental change in the situation. To exaggerate will only increase the despair.”

Fortunately, 9/11 and the war in Iraq have brought Ali to his senses. For the past three years, he has written some very good books and articles about imperialist war that obviously mark a retreat from the navel-gazing perspective put forward by fellow editor Perry Anderson. Unfortunately, what Ali has not recovered is a sense of the imperative for a revolutionary movement that can finally stop the imperialist war-makers in their tracks. Such hopes are obviously not realistic in a time of diminished expectations.

Although the entire interview with Ali can be listened to in streaming audio at http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html#041028, the most relevant passage is available in text, courtesy of Doug Henwood who posted it to his mailing list as part of an ongoing effort to drum up support for John Kerry. For somebody like Henwood, who in unguarded moments still professes admiration for Karl Marx (but not Lenin), it is vitally important to line up expert witnesses like Tariq Ali, who still has some socialist credentials in his capacity as NLR editor. For the activist Marxist left, such credentials of course do not carry much weight.

It is also worth pointing out that Henwood and Ali might strike one as radical versions of Kerry campaign strategist Bob Shrum trying to woo undecided voters in the 11th hour. Does anybody really think anything that Tariq Ali says on Pacifica radio at this late stage of the game will persuade somebody to vote for Kerry rather than Nader? If anything, leftists are even more decided than the average citizen. In reality what Henwood and Ali are about is knocking down challenges now and in the future to the sort of electoral TINA that has been constructed for us. More about that shortly.

Meanwhile, here’s the relevant Henwood-Ali exchange:

DH: You’ve said, on this show among other places, that it’s important that Bush lose, which in practical terms means that Kerry must win. Whenever you say these sorts of things you hear people say he’s no better, maybe worse, than Bush. How do you sort that out?

Tariq Ali: I know. The last time I gave an interview to you on this show I got a lot of rude emails, especially from the United States, but from nowhere else. I got very good emails from Venezuela saying “we saw that interview of yours with Henwood and it’s very good you said that.” This is what I constantly say when I’m in this country to people on the left, look, you have a responsibility to the rest of the world as well. This is no time to fool around. Do not mimic the imperial rulers of your country and think exclusively about yourselves and your own interests, whatever these may be. Just look at the situation globally and ask yourselves this: how would a defeat for George W. Bush be seen in the rest of the world? On this, Doug, I am 100% confident that from the Atlantic to the Urals, through Latin America, in Africa, in the Arab world, this defeat would be seen as a victory. Now, the response to that comes, “Yeah, but Kerry would do the same thing,” but that’s not the point. The point is Bush decided on this war, Bush took this country to war, the neocons and their supporters devised lies which they haven’t been able to deliver that this was a war of liberation. It’s been a complete and total disaster. Should Bush be punished for going to war or not? If you say “yes,” then you have to punish him, and the best way to punish him is to remove him from office. Then you come to Kerry.

As I said, pressure should be put on Kerry from Day One. If he carries on with the war, attack him. But the position would be clear: we removed Bush because he went to war, and if you carry on with the war, then you could be removed as well. You won’t serve a second term either. I honestly can’t see any argument against this. People who say, “Are you advocating a vote for Kerry, you sellout,” my response is, are you seriously advocating that Bush should stay in power? Because that’s the alternative. There’s no third party. There’s no Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party winning a million votes and being locked up for ten years as a result. He’s not around. Nader, quite honestly, he’s a joke figure at the present time. The narcissism is astounding when you hear him speak. There’s no understanding of tactics on a national scale. It’s a tactical question, but it’s an important tactical question. To say that Bush shouldn’t be defeated is to underestimate the loss of Iraqi lives and the loss of American lives in this conflict…. You have to vote against Bush, which means behaving politically and maturely and voting for Kerry.

To put it bluntly, Tariq Ali is urging a vote for the Democrats because he thinks that There Is No Alternative. In his own words: “Because that’s the alternative. There’s no third party. There’s no Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party winning a million votes and being locked up for ten years as a result.”

Ali seems to have forgotten that Nader received 2,882,955 votes in 2000, which was 2.74% of the total vote. While Debs won 6 percent of the vote in 1912, his first campaign in 1900 yielded a paltry 87,814 votes. If Nader had the support of the Greens and the liberal intelligentsia in 2004, it is entirely possible that his support among the broader population would have been even larger, especially in light of the elimination of Howard Dean as an antiwar candidate. Instead, people such as Doug Henwood, Micah Sifry, Norman Solomon and Medea Benjamin have used their intellectual and moral authority to stampede anybody who would listen into voting for a candidate who pledges to win the war in Iraq.

In a more fundamental sense, Ali’s problem is this. He has become so far removed from the world of practical politics that he cannot think strategically, at least in terms of what Marxists should do. For Ali, there is no grasp of transition. We are stuck in mutually exclusive static states. Today and for the foreseeable future obviously, we have awful Republican Party candidates and Democrats who are not so awful. In order to prevent the more awful candidate from taking power, we have to insure the victory of the less awful. Since somebody like Ralph Nader will obviously never be able to win a majority vote, he can only succeed in stealing votes from the less awful candidate.

Missing entirely from this schema is a prescription for how radical alternatives, especially on the electoral front, can be created. You are stuck with the minimalist here-and-now and a maximalist outcome far down the road when American workers arise from their slumber and become willing to cast a vote for a contemporary version of Eugene V. Debs. However, for Marxists the only question worth addressing is how to get from the current stage of politics to something more advanced. As James P. Cannon (the founder of American Trotskyism and just the sort of figure derided in Tariq Ali’s satire on Trotskyism titled “Redemption”) once put it, “The art of politics is knowing what to do next.”

October 24, 2004

Camejo and Shawki

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:13 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 24, 2004

Last night I attended the 8pm plenary of a northeast regional conference organized by the International Socialist Conference up at CCNY. Ralph Nader’s running mate Peter Camejo spoke first, followed by ISO leader Ahmed Shawki.

The ISO is probably the largest socialist group in the USA today, next to the CP. It is a “state capitalist” formation that broke with the British SWP about 4 years ago in a classic instance of Comintern-type meddling. After the ISO had raised some innocent questions about how other sections were being funded (at least to my eyes), it was stigmatized as “not understanding the lessons of Seattle” and either expelled or browbeaten until forced to detach itself from the SWP’s international organization.

It has been rather successful over the past few years in general socialist outreach and participation in the mass movements. The chairperson at the plenary announced that 500 people had shown up for the conference. To my eyes most seemed to be under 30 and included lots of college students. I was also struck by the presence of more than a handful of African-Americans. My guess is that the desire to be connected to a socialist formation overrides Black nationalist and separatist impulses in a period of rising capitalist crisis–especially when the traditional “radical” Black movement has become an appendage of the Kerry campaign.

Camejo’s talk was a combination of his stump campaign speech and observations geared to the socialist audience, which was obviously as fond of him as the American SWP rank-and-file was back in the period before he was expelled for challenging the party’s sectarian course.

The campaign portion of his speech focused on the cognitive dissonance aspect of support for Kerry. You have a situation in which the beliefs and desires of the people voting for him runs counter to his professed goals around a range of questions, including most importantly the war in Iraq. Camejo drew big laughs and applause when he tried to imagine how Kerry supporters reassure themselves in private conversations. They probably tell each other that Kerry is lieing when he says that he seeks victory in Iraq and that he will pull out after being elected. This will be the first time in American history when a politician becomes more popular for telling more lies.

The openly socialist portion of his speech addressed what Peter saw as mounting contradictions in the world capitalist economy. I certainly hope that the ISO will transcribe and publish his remarks because I can hardly do them justice. He pointed to the likelihood that the United States has either reached the Hibbert curve or will soon do so. This means that the rate of economic growth will be slowed by energy shortages. We are also facing a situation in which home ownership has become a kind of savings plan for most working people, as house values increase as a result of cheap mortgage rates induced by low inflation rates. When rising energy costs leads to an inflationary spike, home values will begin to sharply decrease. The consequence might be massive consumer default and bankruptcy.

Both Shawki and Camejo emphasized that in a period of deepening economic crisis, it will matter little to the average working person what Peter Coyote or Medea Benjamin wrote in 2004 (who now apparently regrets supporting Nader in 2000). For somebody facing eviction or unemployment, they will remember who defied the TINA political consensus framed by the 2-party system and who stood up for working people, not left-of-center celebrities. This has been the main reason people such people voted for Nader. It is also the challenge to the Green Party, to decide whether it will be a middle-class party that compromises with the billionaire war-makers in both parties or one creating alternatives to the system.

For those who think that the Green Party will be the vehicle for the ultimate social and economic emancipation of the USA, Camejo made it clear that it will be another party more deeply rooted in the working class. However, it would be a big mistake not to get involved with the Greens today, despite its conflicting tendencies. The debate that is going on in the Greens is important for future developments. To further that debate, Camejo announced the formation of a Green Caucus for Democracy and Independence. It is opposed to the Electoral College type rules that allowed a non-entity like David Cobb to become their Presidential candidate. It also insists that the Greens should run *against* both Democrats and Republicans, as was the original mandate.

Last night was the first chance I heard to hear Shawki speak. In comparison to the SWP leaders I remember with some ambivalence, he comes across as a much more modest figure. I suspect that his relative youth in and of itself would have to make him less cocky. In a pitch perhaps to veterans of 1960s type sects like me, he emphasized that it is not inevitable that socialist groups will heap recriminations on critics of the party line. He believed that the ISO was conscious of such problems and would avoid them. My own take on the matter is that this is a question of methodology rather than good intentions.

Shawki had some interesting observations on an ABB-like outlook popping up in Europe, as elements of the left begin to face the same pressure that it faced in the USA. For example, the revolutionary parties in France got 10 percent of the vote the last time it ran a united left ticket. Now some party leaders are questioning that approach. They are weighing the possibility of throwing their support behind the SP on a “lesser evil” basis. Although Shawki did not mention any names, I was convinced he was speaking of Trotskyist figures deeply embedded in academia like Daniel Bensaid. In Italy, the CP/Refoundation made it a point to reject the Olive Tree coalition of left and bourgeois parties a couple of years ago. Now it has decided to embrace such a coalition.

As the extreme left lowers its profile and as the left-center and traditional right parties continue to attack the living standards of working people, it is inevitable that the extreme right parties will begin to gain in influence as they use radical sounding demagogy. Although we are obviously not in as extreme a crisis as in the 1930s, this kind of “lesser evil” logic has been historically proven to lead to the triumph of fascism. It is incumbent on radicals to avoid this temptation and speak up as forcibly and as visibly as possible for a class alternative to capitalist politicians and programs.

October 15, 2004

Holbrooke, Frankel and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:12 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on October 15, 2004

Today’s fawning review of Max Frankel’s “High Noon In The Cold War” in the NY Times epitomizes the folly of ABBism. In approving former Times editor Frankel’s thesis that JFK’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis is an example of US foreign policy at its multilateral best, reviewer Richard Holbrooke–one of Kerry’s foreign policy advisers and Clinton’s chief delegate to the UN–simply demonstrates that the choice between a “dangerous” George W. Bush and a “sane” Democratic president is illusory at best.

Holbrooke lays out a comparison between 1962 Cuba and Iraq today:

In 1962, unlike 2003, there really were weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear missiles were being secretly placed off Florida by a dangerous adversary seeking a fundamental change in the balance of power.

In 1962, unlike 2003, American intelligence and analysis was excellent. High-altitude photographs found and identified the missiles before they were deployed.

When Adlai Stevenson presented the evidence to the United Nations Security Council, the world accepted America’s word and its photographs without question. (This precedent led the Bush administration to its ill-fated decision to seek an “Adlai moment” at the United Nations in February 2003.)

In 1962, as in 2003, the president was under intense pressure from some members of his Cabinet to take pre-emptive military action, but, unlike 2003, President Kennedy saw the threat of force primarily as a tactical device to achieve a political solution.

In 1962, unlike 2003, Washington mobilized the United Nations and NATO into a coalition that isolated its adversary.

In the spring of 1962, Nikita S. Khrushchev gambled that he could sneak nuclear missiles into Cuba and hide them “unnoticed among Cuba’s majestic palm trees.” It was, Mr. Frankel observes, “worthy of the horse at Troy.” But within hours after the missiles were discovered by a U-2 overflight on Oct. 15, 1962, President Kennedy decided that the deployment of such weapons was unacceptable.

What is missing entirely from this side-by-side comparison is any recognition that the US had no right to dictate to either Cuba or Iraq what went on inside their borders. The hypocrisy of both Holbrooke and Frankel beggars description. In 1962, Cuba felt the need to defend itself because it had already been invaded by the USA’s proxy gusano army only one year earlier. Holbrooke blandly asserts that “When Adlai Stevenson presented the evidence to the United Nations Security Council, the world accepted America’s word and its photographs without question.”

He neglects to mention that Stevenson had been caught up in the lies surrounding the Bay of Pigs invasion and was not likely to be taken at his words outside imperialist circles.

Shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion began, Stevenson flatly rejected Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Raúl Roa’s report of the attack to the UN as supported by American bombers. Stevenson said, in an anticipation of the kind of coverage Judith Miller made infamous, that the planes were actually from the Cuban Air Force–backing up his claim with a photo of a B-26 used in the invasion. It was revealed, however, that the plane shown had an opaque nose, whereas the Cuban B-26’s had a Plexiglas nose. Stevenson was extremely embarrassed when the truth was revealed, especially when he also learned that Kennedy had referred to him as “my official liar.”

Holbrooke openly approves of the kind of collusion that went on between Kennedy’s top advisers and the editors at the NY Times and Washington Post:

During the first week of the crisis, no one but a small group of advisers known as the Executive Committee, or ExCom, knew about the missiles. The importance of this total secrecy cannot be overestimated; a rush to action under public pressure could easily have resulted in a catastrophic mistake. With great self-control, the 44-year-old president absented himself from many of the ExCom meetings to allow freer debate, but he was kept informed by his brother Robert, then attorney general, and by Theodore C. Sorensen, his brilliant alter ego, who drafted many key public statements and private messages during the crisis.

Importantly, the secret held — with an assist from The Washington Post and The Times, which both figured out what was going on a day or two before Kennedy was scheduled to make his address to the nation. They both agreed, after personal requests from Kennedy, not to print the story. (Mr. Frankel recalls listening in as the president pleaded with The Times’s Washington bureau chief, James Reston, not to publish what they knew.) It was, given the stakes, the correct decision.

Agreeing to not publish a story as important as this? Considering the tendency of Timesmen such as Leslie Gelb to shuttle back and forth from the paper to the federal government and the decision by A.M. Rosenthal to pull Raymond Bonner out of Central America to placate the Reagan White House, I can’t say that this comes as a big surprise.

Holbrooke deals with the question of a tit-for-tat with the USSR over missile placement:

There was one other issue, which has been denied, debated and finally revealed bit by bit. This concerned the removal of 15 Jupiter medium-range missiles from Turkey. By the time they were installed in early 1962 they were already obsolete; President Dwight D. Eisenhower said they should have been dumped at sea rather than sent to Turkey, and American nuclear submarines made them superfluous. But a public “trade” of the Soviet missiles in Cuba for the American Jupiters in Turkey would have constituted a substantial propaganda victory for Khrushchev and, Kennedy feared, encouraged future Soviet blackmail.

The USA seized at the opportunity to make such an unequal exchange and the missile crisis came to an end. What if the USSR had not agreed to withdraw the missiles and what if gunfire had been exchanged at the naval blockade around Cuba, leading to an all-out war? I imagine that the nuclear annihilation would have made the raging debate about Kerry versus Bush (one that the good Maureen Dowd does not take very seriously) entirely moot.

In the final analysis, the only way to maintain peace in the world is to transform the current system, which allows the USA to dominate the world through military and economic intimidation, into one that is based on equality between nations and respect for international law. Considering Holbrooke’s acceptance of Frankel’s cold war bellicosity at face value and the possibility that he might be our next Secretary of State under a Kerry administration, the future looks grim.

October 6, 2004


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:09 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on October 6, 2004

As “Moolaadé” starts, we see four prepubescent girls running into the compound of Collé Ardo Gally Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly), one of the three wives of a West African farmer. They are seeking asylum from a purification rite centered on the removal of the clitoris. As a young girl, Collé refused to submit to the procedure, as well she might since at best it is horribly painful and at worst results in permanent injury or death to the victim. She has also refused to allow her own teenage daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traoré) to be circumcised. In their small farming village steeped in patriarchy and Islamic fundamentalism, such “impure” women usually remain unmarried.

The young girls are willing to take that risk since word about the horrors of the ritual spread fast in a small village. Collé decides to grant them “moolaadé,” or sanctuary. She ties a multicolored cord across the portal of her compound, which under the laws of her village keeps the knife-wielding women charged with the duty of carrying out the ritual at bay.

In deciding to resist male oppression and religious backwardness, Collé personifies the kind of struggle taking place all across Africa today. In writing and directing such a film, the 81 year old Ousmane Sembene has not only remained consistent with his own progressive vision of a new Africa; he has also made the greatest film of a career spanning four decades.

Using mostly unprofessional actors and filming on location in a Djerisso, a small town in Burkina Faso, Sembene serves as a kind of griot to traditional society. The dialogue is written with a high degree of faithfulness to the way that traditional people speak. However, Sembene’s own political vision of a more just and more rational society permeates the drama in a seamless fashion. Ordinary people articulate extraordinary hopes for a better world using plain but poetic language.

One of the more interesting characters is “Le mercenaire,” played by Dominique Zeïda, an itinerant peddler who sells clothing, pots and pans, batteries, bread, condoms, etc. from a cart in the village square. Although our first impression is that of a raffish womanizer trying to exchange goods for sex with the local women, he eventually decides to risk his life on behalf of Collé’s struggle. It seems that “Le mercenaire” has seen the world as a United Nations soldier and had absorbed a lot of the rhetoric about human rights as well as a more enlightened view of male-female relations. He was also the leader of a soldier’s protest against unequal wages that earned him 5 years in the stockade. Such progressive minded soldiers appear frequently in Sembene’s films and no doubt reflect his own experience in WWII, when he fought to liberate France from German occupation.

Since most of the action takes place in the village square, the film almost has the quality of a stage presentation. Characters arrive and depart from the square almost as if from offstage. In their traditional clothing and almost choreographed motions, they evoke an African version of Kabuki theater. This is no accident since Kabuki and “Moolaadé” both depict highly stratified social structures, where lords and vassals must conform to strict rules.

This is not to say that the film lacks a connection to the crude realities of rural life. As a poet with a camera, Sembene integrates goats, chickens and dogs into the action with both lyricism and wit. After the village elders decide to ban radios, a source of subversive ideas from the outside world, Collé salvages an ancient radio that still works. As she is showing off the radio to her anti-circumcision comrades, cockroaches begin to stream out–only to be pecked at by nearby chickens. This image has more power than a Hollywood car chase costing millions. One can imagine the 81 year old Sembene giving instructions to the chicken handlers!

In an excerpt from a forthcoming biography of Sembene titled “Ousmane Sembene: The Life of a Revolutionary Artist” by Samba Gadjigo, we discover that the film-maker has had strong connections with left politics:

In 1947, unemployed in the thick of a war-ravaged colonial economy, Sembene left Dakar in search of a better living and the opportunity to feed his unquenchable thirst for learning. He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until 1960, the year Senegal was granted independence. As a black African docker who knew how to read and write, he was soon identified by labor union leader Victor Gagnere and enrolled in the Confederation generale des travailleurs (CGT), the largest and most powerful left-wing workers’ union in post-war France. After backbreaking work unloading ships during the day (containers did not exist then), at night and on weekends Sembene enthusiastically attended seminars and workshops on Marxism and joined the French Communist Party in 1950. In 1951, while unloading a ship, Sembene broke his backbone. After a long recovery and unable to sustain the physical effort required by the work of a docker, he was given a post as a switchman and the opportunity to advance from a laborer into a well-rounded intellectual. As his comrade and friend Bernard Worms put it: “He rose to the status of the intellectual aristocracy of the labor movement; he became “un honnete homme.”

Sembene spent most of his free time roaming public libraries, museums, theater halls, and tirelessly attending seminars on Marxism and Communism. He read everything: Marxist ideology, political economics, political science, and works of fiction and history. During those Marseilles years, with the passion and obsession of a new convert, Sembene also participated in the protest movements organized by the French Communist Party against the colonial war in Indochina (1953) and the Korean War (1950-1953). He also openly supported (and later wrote about) the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle for independence from France, and he vehemently protested against the Rosenberg trial and execution in the United States in 1953. Dreaming of the universal freedom and brotherhood promised by communist ideology, Sembene also worked to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and “apolitical” African workers shipwrecked at the margins of French society.

It was also in the midst of such intense political activism that Sembene discovered other communist artists and writers: Richard Wright, John Roderigo (Dos Passos), Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemingway, Nazim Hikmet. He also came into contact with the works of the Jamaican Communist writer Claude McKay (whose 1929 novel Banjo would influence Sembene’s first novel) and the novels of Jacques Roumain, another Communist writer from Haiti and author of the classic Masters of the Dew (1947). Sembene also became involved with the international Communist youth organization Les Auberges de jeunesses and discovered the Communist theater Le Theatre Rouge.

In an interview with Sembene, Samba Gadjigo asks him:

We have gone through the experience of slavery; we have gone through colonization; now it’s the experience of globalization and neocolonization. Every time, the people of Africa arise every time from their wounds. Ousmane Sembene, where do we get our strength from?

Sembene’s reply is as follows:

I don’t know, I can’t say. But, we must pay a lot of attention to what you have just said. Until now Africa has always risen, but this new century is the most dangerous century, this present phase is the most dangerous one for the continent. Slavery was blessed by the Church, and accepted by the Europeans. You can find it in the Bible, the Koran and even the Talmud. With colonization, it was Europe that divided Africa for its riches. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Europeans got together again several times to carve up Africa. France, Italy, England, Germany divided and shared Africa. Even during slavery each of these countries had their area on the African coast. Now, Europe is in the process of uniting, of regrouping. This same Europe that divided us; that same France who, in 1789, spoke of liberty, of man’s rights, for them, but not for the Africans. They continued to practice slavery and then colonization. Globalization isn’t so. Once again we find ourselves squeezed for our primary riches that Europe wants. We are, one more time, the object of the battles. What is thought nowadays in Africa is even more worrisome. Since 1960, Africans have killed more Africans than a hundred years of slavery and colonization. Now people speak of globalization, and it’s enough to just take our area called “francophone.” Our leaders, I’d say almost all of them, have houses in Europe, ready to retire to Europe as soon as the smallest problem comes up in their country. We are not concerned by globalization, we are not even in tow. The problem is more mental than economic. When Africans cannot exchange between themselves, between neighboring countries, that is a problem right there. They speak about the market constituted by the European Union, about 250,000,000 people. In Africa we are a potential market of more than 900.000.000! The economic laws and laws of physics are the same everywhere, in all cultures, all languages.

“Moolaadé” was shown at this year’s New York Film Festival and is scheduled to open on October 15th at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Cinema Village in NYC. This is a film for the ages.

Full interview with Sembene: http://www.marxmail.org/INTERVIEW_SEMBENE.htm

Full article on Sembene: http://www.marxmail.org/OUSMANE_SEMBENE.htm

October 5, 2004

Paul Berman and Philip Roth

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on October 5, 2004

I suppose that many people–especially on the Marxism list–have the same kind of aversion to Paul Berman that I do, but I felt compelled to read his +5000 word review (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/03/books/review/03BERMAN.html) of Philip Roth’s new novel “The Plot Against America” in much the same way I would take in a highway accident. The real Lindbergh was an aviator who achieved fame for his solo flight to Europe in 1927. Lindbergh was also an admirer of Hitler and an anti-Semite. Roth’s novel imagines Charles Lindbergh becoming the fascist president of the USA and rounding up the Jews.

When he was a columnist for the liberal, postmodernist Village Voice in the 1980s, Paul Berman was blazing a trail for Christopher Hitchens as he used the newsweekly to rally readers against the Sandinista threat to freedom. Using anarchist jargon that he would drop after his career began to skyrocket later on, Berman would make the case for Costa Rica-based contra Eden Pastora who would break with the FSLN early on after discovering, along with Ronald Reagan, that they were “Communists.”

In the 1990s, Berman became a cheerleader for war on Yugoslavia, thus indicating that he retained a keen sense for where the big bucks were. Writing screeds against Milosevic would almost certainly endear you to the publishers of leading journals of the soft left, while finding something of value in what was left of Titoism would get you tarred as a WWP supporter or worse. As everybody knows, supporting NATO’s war on Yugoslavia prepared Berman, Hitchens and many other Dissentoid types for cheering on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Berman wrote a book last year that defended Western Liberalism against Islamo-fascism. Berman and Philip Roth seem to share a belief that fascism of any stripe has more to do with ideology spinning out of control rather than material conditions. In the 1930s, according to Berman, German hatred for liberal values led them to back Hitler just as reading the obscure Islamic radical Sayyid Qutb to excess might have led to 9/11.

This prompts Nation Magazine reviewer George Scialabba to point out:

What allowed these shameful motives [voting for Hitler] into play and swept away civilized inhibitions against them? A sheerly mysterious upwelling of hatred for liberal values, as Berman insists? Were there no predisposing material influences? There could have been, after all. In 1918-19 the British government extended its naval blockade for eight months after the German surrender, at a cost of perhaps half a million lives–a vivid and bitterly resented memory fifteen years later. The Versailles settlement was harsh and vindictive. Throughout the 1920s the German economy was weak; the Weimar inflation wiped out the life savings of the middle class (where most of Hitler’s support came from). And then the bottom fell out altogether. Between 1929 and 1932 German industrial production dropped by half, stock prices by two-thirds, unemployment tripled and government welfare expenditures increased thirteenfold. It was, in one historian’s words, “an unprecedented catastrophe.” Another historian reminds us that “the potential maximum of Nazi [voter] support mark…hover[ed] around the forty percent mark,” a figure “it is useful to bear in mind in view of what some authors have said about ‘the Germans” enthusiasm for Hitler.” Still another historian quotes a Nazi official to the effect that “the party program weighed less heavily with voters than the feeling that only National Socialism still had the strength to drag the cart out of the mire.”

full: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030428&c=2&s=scialabba

Stuck in the middle of Berman’s interminable review is a bilious diatribe directed against the antiwar movement in the USA:

The anti-Semitism Roth describes in the 1940’s springs mostly from an antiwar resentment — from the belief that the Jews, and not the Nazis, bear responsibility for the war, and are trying to advance their own narrow interests at everyone else’s expense. And perhaps a bit of this has likewise turned up in our own time. During the last two or three years, large publics in Western Europe and even in the United States have taken up the view that, if extremist political movements have swept across large swaths of the Muslim world, and if Baathists and radical Islamists have slaughtered literally millions of people during these last years, and then have ended up at war with the United States, Israel and its crimes must ultimately be to blame. And if America has been drawn into war in Iraq, it is because President Bush’s second-level foreign policy advisers include a few Jews (though all of his toplevel advisers are Protestants), and these second-level figures have manipulated everyone else to the bidding of Ariel Sharon.

Quite a few protesters who subscribe to interpretations of this sort have found it natural during the last few years to march through the streets bearing placards denouncing Sharon, and sometimes comparing him to Hitler — quite as if Sharon were the embodiment of evil in the modern world. Some people have found it natural to go a bit farther, and have proclaimed an outright approval of suicide terrorism, as happened in Washington, where people marching in the street chanted, ”Martyrs, not murderers!”

It has become natural in these last years for political cartoonists in Europe to draw Sharon in the memorable style that Nazi cartoonists used to reserve for Jews; natural for a notorious and well-designed poster in San Francisco to suggest, in the spirit of medieval anti- Semitism, that Israelis murder Palestinian children in order to eat them; natural for Jewish students to feel intimidated at more than a few American college campuses; natural, in Paris, for a handful of militants to veer off from the biggest of the protest marches against the invasion of Iraq and rough up a few Jews — these many astonishing developments that depart pretty sharply from the protest atmosphere of the Vietnam era, yet do conjure a few scents and flavors of the 1930’s and 40’s.

Or is it ludicrous to suggest any such parallels? Maybe the mere act of noticing a few odors of a long-ago past insinuates a slander against the overwhelming mass of good-hearted antiwar protesters from our current era, who have never dabbled in scapegoat theories and cannot be held responsible for every zealot of the anti-Zionist cause or proponent of radical Islamism who chooses to carry a placard or to shout slogans. For that matter, is it fair to see any parallels at all between the heavy hand and cynical manipulations of the Bush administration, and the heavier hand and even more cynical manipulations of true-blue authoritarians from darker times and more sinister places, long ago? I have my opinions on these matters, and so does everyone else, and so does Philip Roth, I imagine.

Yeah, and I have my own opinion as well. Paul Berman is full of shit.

October 4, 2004

The Take

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 4, 2004

In the opening moments of Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s documentary about occupied factories in Argentina titled “The Take,” we see Klein being hectored by a rightwing TV host. If she is not for the capitalist system, then what is she *for*. This is obviously is a tough question for autonomists like Klein who resist being pinned down, but she and her partner decided to make an attempt in “The Take.” Despite their best intentions, the film poses more questions than it answers. Ultimately, the film succeeds not as a political statement but as a record of ordinary workers trying to maintain their dignity.

For non-Marxist radicals like Klein, coming up with a model means first of all rejecting the USSR or Cuba which are dismissed as verticalist nightmares at the beginning of the film. The attraction of occupied factories in Argentina is that they are exercises in direct democracy, but do not involve the messy business of government, with its distasteful cops, courts and bureaucracy, etc. Of course, if you do not evaluate such institutions through the prism of class, you will never be able to operate politically on the most basic level. In the final analysis, cops will either support factories run by workers or they will evict them. Class power is the ultimate determinant of that outcome.

The film focuses on the efforts of workers to keep three factories running on a cooperative basis: Forja San Martin, Zanon and Brukman. Although Brukman, a garment shop, has only 58 workers, it is by far the best-known of these experiments. For autonomists, it has achieved the kind of mythic proportions that the St. Petersburg Soviet has for some Marxists. (It should be mentioned that the sectarian Marxist left rallied around Brukman as well, not so much because it was a model but because it was seen as an apocalyptic struggle between society’s two main classes.)

What gives the film its most dramatic tension is the uneasy relationship between a young woman who is working at Zanon, a ceramics plant, and her mother–an ardent Peronista. For her daughter, voting is a sign that you support the “system.” Her mother is a precinct organizer for the Nestor Kirchner campaign. Kirchner was running against former President Carlos Menem, who had been the chief architect of the undoing of Argentina with the cooperation of the IMF and Wall St. Perhaps the refusal of the young Zanon worker to get involved with organized political activity might have something to do with the fact that at least one of her fellow workers had plans to vote for Menem. When radicals abstain from electoral politics, the field is left wide open for the class enemy.

If you can filter out Lewis and Klein’s autonomist preaching, you are left with an inspiring story of the spirit of cooperation of working people. In many of these factories, workers have decided to pay themselves an equal wage. In addition, the fact that these factories can operate without a boss is a testimony to the feasibility of socialism.

The film fails both as a coherent narrative and as ideology by taking a dismissive attitude toward the role of the government following the election of Kirchner. It states that he has cut a deal with the IMF, just as Menem his predecessor did. The truth is more complex. In reality Kirchner has tried to balance himself between the Argentine masses and the IMF after the fashion of Michael Manley in Jamaica or other populist and social democratic politicians in Latin American history. While they will never decisively break with imperialism, they can carry out progressive measures under the pressure of the masses. But not to be able to distinguish between a Michael Manley and an Edward Seaga, or a Kirchner and a Menem is a big mistake.

We might also ask whether Cuba society is so antithetical to the example of workers taking control over their plants at the grass roots level in Argentina. One might hope that Klein and her co-thinkers would take a look at Edward Boorstein’s “The Economic Transformation of Cuba” someday. This important MR book is a Marxist attempt to answer the question Klein attempted to answer: “what are you for”. When we read Boorstein, we discover the ways in which ordinary workers, including blacks–the most oppressed–asserted themselves in Cuba, moreover with the support of the cops, the courts and the bureaucracy! Boornstein writes:

By October 1960 most of the administrative and technical personnel had left Cuba. The Americans and some of the Cubans were withdrawn by the home companies of the plants for which they worked, or left of their own accord: they found themselves unable to understand the struggle with the United States, unwilling to accept the new way of life that was opening up before them.

The Revolutionary Government had to keep the factories and mines going only with a minute proportion of the usual trained and experienced personnel. A few examples can perhaps best give an idea of what happened.

Five of us from the Ministry of Foreign Commerce, on a business visit, were being taken through the Moa nickel plant. In the electric power station–itself a large plant–which served the rest of the complex, our guide was an enthusiastic youngster of about 22. He did an excellent job as guide, but his modesty as well as his age deceived us and only toward the end of our tour did we realize that he was not some sort of apprentice engineer or assistant–he was in charge of the plant. I noticed that he spoke English well and asked him if he had lived in the States. “Sure,” he answered, “I studied engineering at Tulane.” As soon as he finished, he had come back to work for the Revolution and had been placed in charge of the power plant.

In another part of the complex, the head of one of the key departments was a black Cuban who had about four years of elementary school education. He had been an observant worker and when engineer of his department left he knew what to do–although he didn’t really know why, or how his department related to the others in the plant. Now to learn why, he was plugging away at his minimo tecnico manual–one of the little mimeographed booklets which had been distributed throughout industry to improve people’s knowledge of their jobs.

And so on throughout the Moa plant. The engineer in charge of the whole enterprise, who had a long cigar in his hand and his feet on the desk as he gave us his criticisms of the way our Ministry was handling his import requirements, was about 28 years old. His chief assistants were about the same age and some of them were obviously not engineers.

Yet Moa was made to function. Even laymen are struck with its delicate beauty–a testament to American engineering skill. ‘Es una joya’–it’s a jewel, say the Cubans. It is much more impressive than the larger but older nickel plant at Nicaro. Shortly after the nickel ore is clawed out of the earth by giant Bucyrus power shovels, it a pulverized and mixed with water to form a mixture 55 percent and 45 percent water. From then on all materials movement is liquids, in pipes, automatically controlled. The liquids move through the several miles of the complex, in and out of the separate plants, with the reducers, mixing vats, etc. Everything depends on innumerable delicate instruments, and on unusual materials, resistant to exceptions high temperatures and various kinds of chemical reaction. The margin for improvising in repairing or replacing parts is small-much smaller than in the mechanized rather than the automated Nicaro plant. Yet the Moa plant was in operation when we were there: two of the main production lines were going-and all four would have been going jf it had not been necessary to cannibalize two lines to get replacement parts for the other two.

Except that Moa was an especially complex and difficult operation, jt was typical of what happened throughout the mines and factories, and far that matter in the railroads, banks, department stores, and movie houses that had been taken over. The large oil companies had expected that the Cubans would not be able to run the oil refineries. But they were wrong. When a co-worker and I talked to the young administrator of the now combined Esso-Shell refineries across the bay from Havana, he said, only half-jokingly, that he was about two lessons ahead of us in his understanding of how the refinery worked–and I wondered how it was kept going. But we had been around the ten minutes earlier and there it was–going.

A textile plant was placed in the charge of a bearded young man of about 23 who had impressed Major Guevara with his courage and resourcefulness in the Rebel Army. The former Procter and Gamble plant, which each year turns out several million dollars worth of soaps, and tooth paste, was run by a former physician who, besides being generally able, knew some chemistry. For many months, the Matahambre copper mine was in the charge of an American geologist, a friend of mine. After coming to Cuba to work for the Revolution, he had been pressed into service, though he was not a mining engineer and had never run a mine, because he was still the most qualified person available. He had to educate himself rapidly in mine ventilation; this was one of Matahambre’s biggest problems at the time. I went through the mine with him once end it was obvious from the way the men treated him that he had gained their respect for the way he was handling his job.

Once an economist from the Ministry of Industry and I visited a large plant near Matanzas that produced rayon for tires, textiles, and export. We sensed at the plant that the harassed, outspoken administrator, almost the only engineer left, was all but sustaining the whole operation by himself. We got into a conversation about him with one of his assistants. It turned out he had a bad leg of some sort which was giving him trouble; his father, who had owned valuable property in the nearby swanky bathing resort at Varadero was out of sympathy with the Revolution; and his brother, also an engineer, had left for Venezuela or some such place. But there he was, holding a meeting with his staff at 11 P.M., using all his energy to help keep the rayonera going.

When you walked through a Cuban factory, you didn’t need to be told that it was under new management–you could see and feel it everywhere. In the Pheldrake plant for producing wire and cable, formerly owned by Dutch and American interests, the whole office of administration was filled by men in shirt-sleeves who were unmistakably workers; the engineers had gone and the workers had taken over. On the main floor, a group of them were struggling–using baling wire techniques–to repair one of the extrusion machines so that the wire required by the Cuban telephone industry could be kept coming. In a large tobacco factory, the administrator was black; in the metal-working plant formerly owned by the American Car and Foundry Company, the head of a department turning out chicken incubators was black. Black people had not held such positions before the Revolution.

War is Peace

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:30 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on October 4, 2004

If you had told me 3 years or so ago that broad layers of the US left would be backing a pro-war candidate in the 2004 elections, I never would have believed it.

An important element of this is the susceptibility of many liberals and some radicals to describe the Iraqi resistance as Islamo-fascists, etc. Some of the people heaping such abuse were veterans of the Vietnam era radicalization, who apparently forgot how the Vietnamese revolutionaries were described at the time. They were linked to Joseph Stalin and at least in the pages of Dissent Magazine an antiwar demonstration was interpreted as endorsement of the Gulags.

While somebody like Christopher Hitchens exhibits this tendency in its full hothouse flowering, you find others along the liberal-left spectrum moving inexorably in the same direction. In today’s edition of marccooper.com, we find the one-time aide to Salvador Allende enthusing over an article by one Ahmed S. Hashim in the leftish Boston Review that “paints a vivid and rather chilling picture of the armed opposition to the U.S. occupation.” This has been part of a recent propaganda spasm by people like Frank Smyth, Doug Ireland and Cooper to smear principled antiwar efforts as tantamount to raising money for the Ku Klux Klan or something.

The Boston Review, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the war research entity known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, represents itself on its website as practically the second coming of Norman Thomas:

“Boston Review’s political project is especially fundamental to its editorial identity. And that project is defined by a set of convictions and a practical premise. Briefly summarized, the convictions are egalitarian, radically democratic, and culturally pluralist: We hope for a world with greater socio-economic equality, in which life chances do not reflect the morally irrelevant differences among us; a world with more participation by citizens in running their common affairs, in which the exercise of political power is shaped by our common reason and not by private wealth; a world in which equal citizens acknowledge the diversity of decent ways to live, and do not seek to confine human existence to a single, authoritative pattern.”

So exactly who is this Ahmed S. Hashim that will raise the awareness of the Boston Review readership about the situation in Iraq? The magazine informs us rather shamelessly that he is “a professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.” I must say that in this day and age it does not really surprise me that a “radically democratic” publication would have an affinity for such a professor.

On April 21, 2004, Dr. Ahmed S. Hashim testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee April 21, 2004 where he advised this august body that:

we need to restore stability and security in the short-term. By the short-term I mean between the next three months to a year. I want to focus on this, rather than the long-term which we cannot afford to think about at the present until the situation stabilizes. We could do the following:

–Increase the number of troop levels: This is a highly controversial issue. We simply do not know where the extra U.S. troops will come from or ultimately how much will be available. It does not look likely that we will take them out of Afghanistan. It is more than likely that we will be activating reserve and National Guard units. Hypothetically, we will need tens of thousands to deal with the insurgency with any degree of success.

–Seal and police Iraq’s porous borders: Iraq’s borders are wide open; the new Iraqi border guards face considerable challenges: they are ill-trained, poorly-equipped, and few in number. Iraqis have complained bitterly about their unpoliced borders. The influx of foreign terrorists and insurgents has not been great in terms of quantity; however, what matters is the quality of the infiltrators. They have had a combat multiplier effect with respect to the insurgency. Last but not least, control over the country’s borders will affect the burgeoning drug trade into Iraq which is being undertaken by organized criminal groups.


October 2, 2004

Crimson Gold

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 2, 2004

Although Iranian films have a reputation–perhaps undeserved–for the kind of wistful detachment found in Ingmar Bergman, “Crimson Gold” is an unflinching look at the stark class divisions that mark contemporary Iran. It owes a lot to Italian neo-realism and also suggests why frustrations with the status quo have erupted into well-publicized street demonstrations.

“Crimson Gold” is directed by Jafar Panahi, who also directed the very fine “White Balloon” in 1995. “White Balloon” is a more typical Iranian film, focused on the efforts of a seven year old girl to track down an exceptionally plump goldfish for a New Year’s Day celebration. Both “Crimson Gold” and “White Balloon” were written by Abbas Kiarostami, who also directs his own films. Since Kiarostami’s reputation is based on films with a private vision, I was surprised to see such a biting criticism of class inequality in Iran today.

“Crimson Gold” tells the story of Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), a lumbering, overweight and impassive man in his 30s who delivers pizzas on a motorcycle in Teheran. He is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and has a medical condition–presumably war-related–that requires him to take cortisone, which accounts for the weight gain. He lives in a grimy one-room flat and seems to take pleasure in nothing, not even in the prospective marriage to the attractive sister of his best friend Ali (Kamyar Sheisi), a fellow pizza deliverer.

Ali is also a petty thief who has talked Hussein into being his getaway driver. In the opening scene, they sit in a tea shop going through the contents of a stolen purse. When they discover a receipt for a valuable bracelet, they go to the jewelry store along with Hussein’s fiancée with divergent motives. Ali is interested in casing it for a future robbery, while Hussein is more interested in buying a necklace for his future bride. In their shabby clothes, Hussein and his companions are treated as riffraff by the jewelry shop owner who invites them to go shop in Teheran’s slums. The rebuff is so upsetting to Hussein that he collapses into a cold sweat outside the store.

Although Hussein never articulates his feelings, we can see Teheran through his sorrowful eyes. One night on his way to a pizza delivery, he is accosted by cops and soldiers at the front door, who tell him to wait there until their operation is finished. They are lying in wait for affluent people going to a party on the third floor where alcohol is being served and where unmarried couples are dancing. This is against the law in the Islamic republic. The cops have no regard for Hussein, who will not be paid and who will have to wait until the early hours of the morning to leave the scene. He strikes up a conversation with a fifteen year old soldier from the countryside who has lied about his age in order to find a job in the army. The entire scene is a paradigm of the brutal class realities of contemporary Iran and practically a cry for sweeping change.

On another delivery, he is welcomed into the opulent mansion of a young man who has just returned to Iran because of homesickness. Now that he has returned to live with his mother and father, he can only complain that “everybody is a lunatic” in Iran. As the young man paces around his mansion with a telephone trying to cajole a woman to come spend the night with him, Hussein wanders about the rooms in what we understand to be astonishment at the extravagant life-style.

The accumulated injuries of class finally drive him to join Ali in a abortive robbery on the jewelry store they had visited earlier. Panahi and Kiarostami are really not interested in a crime story, however. The scene not only takes place in less than a minute, it is foreshadowed at the beginning of the film so that when it happens, you are not really surprised.

Panahi told the Guardian (9/2/2003): “Take any human being and you find that his situation is a direct result of his family, his education, his economic position.” “Crimson Gold” has been banned for obvious reasons in Iran.

In one of the more daring casting choices in the history of film, Panahi cast a real-life pizza delivery-man who suffers from schizophrenia in the role of Hussein. This gives the character’s brooding inwardness a reality that might have been difficult for another actor to achieve. Panahi said, “We knew he was a schizophrenic in advance, so we knew he would be difficult to work with. But I had no idea that it was going to be that difficult. On several occasions I was tempted to stop shooting and simply abandon the entire project.”

Panahi has not only run into trouble with the Iranian authorities. He has become part of the legion of artists and writers who have run afoul of stringent travel codes set up by the INS in the wake of 9/11. Last year he refused to attend the New York Film Festival because the new security requirement of fingerprinting Iranian nationals offended him. This is the letter he wrote to Richard Peña, the festival’s director:

August 5, 2003
Richard Pena
Program Director
New York Film Festival

Dear Richard:

I must thank you for selecting my film, Crimson Gold, for the prestigious New York Film Festival, and for all your tremendous efforts over the last decade to introduce Iranian cinema to American people. But I must apologize for not being able to attend the festival due to the fingerprinting requirement for Iranian nationals.

We live in strange times. It’s not just George Bush who subscribes to the idea that you are either with us or against us. In my country, too, anyone slightly crossing any red lines is subject to the suspicion of the censors who label him as being alienated, self-loathing, mercenary, infiltrator, enemy agent, and even heretic. Here, they interrogate me because I am a socially conscious filmmaker. In America, they fingerprint me, and literally shackle me to kill my national pride, because I am an Iranian filmmaker. This is the kind of purgatory I, and many others like me, find ourselves in.

Dear Richard, I have no doubt you understand why I do not wish to subject myself to a humiliating treatment upon arriving in America. I am sure you understand why I refuse to compromise my beliefs, as a filmmaker and a human being, anywhere inside or outside of Iran.


Jafar Panahi

(“Crimson Gold” is now available in DVD/Video and highly recommended.)

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