Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 25, 2005

Ronald Aronson considers Leon Trotsky

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 25, 2005

I want to draw comrades’ attention to a long, serious but profoundly wrong-headed review of the new edition of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky on the Nation Magazine website: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050314&s=aronson

It is written by Wayne University professor Ronald Aronson who has committed himself to writing and lecturing about Marxism throughout his academic career. Like many tenured radicals, Aronson started out as a 1960s activist. You can find out about his past at: http://www.professionalrevolutionary.org/aronsonbio.htm. His most recent work is “Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It,” a book that appears much more charitable toward Camus than I would be.

As an undergraduate in the 1960s, I had Camus’s books jammed down my throat by Heinrich Blucher at Bard College. Blucher was married to Hannah Arendt and shared her libertarian, anti-Communist prejudices. I hadn’t thought much about Camus in recent years, but was reminded of how put off I had become by some of his ideas after reading the late John Hess’s evisceration of the French existentialist in Monthly Review, one of his crowning achievements. You can read this at: http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2004w05/msg00233.htm along with a NY Times article by Edward Rothstein on the topic “Camus and the Neo-Cons: More in Common Than They Might Suspect.”

Aronson’s review starts off on a rueful note:

“It is impossible to read Deutscher’s Trotsky biography today without being struck by how remote these hopes now seem. The Soviet Union is gone, and revolutionary projects aiming at human emancipation seem to have exhausted themselves.”

I would tell the good professor to take heart since Cuba is alive and well and, as an added bonus, Hugo Chavez has just declared himself in favor of socialism. I sometimes wonder why the USSR occupied such a large place in the hearts and minds of the academic left, since it obviously was already beyond hope when we were all young and gay. Is it possible that the USSR plays the same role for these good people as Jane Austen novels play for MLA members?

After making some very charitable comments about what a positive inspiration Leon Trotsky was, Aronson rolls up his sleeves and begins working over his subject. Getting down to brass tacks, Aronson writes that “Trotsky’s Marxism was of little use in negotiating the new situation created by the Bolshevik Revolution.” Why? Because:

Stalin sought power; Trotsky did not. In the void of backward Russia in which the Bolsheviks ruled in the name of the workers but stood above all social classes, the “base” of workers so trusted by Trotsky mattered less than the “superstructure” of increasingly self-interested party officials appointed by Stalin. The reality that sealed Trotsky’s and the Soviet Union’s fate was not Marxist at all.

I am not exactly sure whether a reality, one way or another, can be described as “Marxist” or not. Soviet history teaches us that a social layer drawn from the party hierarchy, plant management, military officers, etc. assumed power and ruled as a kind of intermediate layer between the Russian working class, which had been decimated by civil war, and world imperialism. If there is some other analytical tool that can describe the logic of these events with more acuity than Marxism, then let’s hear it. What are we talking about? Foucault? Mike Albert and Robin Hahnel? The Amherst neo-Althusserians? Aaah, no thanks.

Continuing along his rueful way, Aronson shakes his head in disappointment over the foolishness of the Bolshevik leaders who thought that the Russian revolution could unleash a world revolution. Didn’t they know that such a move was premature? Echoing Kautsky, without having the honesty to mention his name, Aronson cites Engels, who supposedly warned that a leader coming to power before the time is “ripe for the domination of the class which he represents” is “irrevocably lost.” This comes from “The Peasant War In Germany,” an 1850 work that examines the career of 16th century peasant leader Thomas Muenzer. I would think that a more immediately relevant text is Marx’s 1881 letter to Zasulich, which argued that a peasant-led revolution in backward Russia could lead to a generalized European working-class uprising. Then, again, revolution is not like buying real estate in Manhattan. A certain amount of risk is inevitable.

Aronson thinks that the prospect for revolution in Europe during the 1920s was dim at best. “What, after all, were the grounds for thinking that the Russian Revolution would trigger a European revolution that would support the Soviet Union and transform the world? Hadn’t French and German workers marched off to war proudly and spent four years killing one another at the behest of their rulers?”

With his busy schedule, I am not sure whether Aronson has delved into the fascinating history of the German working-class of the 1920s, but the preponderant evidence is that those four years of war turned them into fierce opponents of the capitalist system. The Communist Party of Germany had 350,000 members in 1921. That’s a lot of revolutionary minded workers, methinks. And the non-Communist workers were just as uppity. In the state of Saxony a Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. But maybe the Bolsheviks were doomed to failure until the CP had recruited 700,000 members? Or, if Zeigner had not only called for a proletarian dictatorship, but for the annexation of Germany to the USSR as well? We don’t want to go off half-cocked, do we?

(The German revolution failed not because the workers were not ready for basic change, but because a revolutionary party had not been built. For those still committed to Marxism, those tragic days are still worth studying.)

Aronson’s review concludes with the observation that Marxism leads to a single-party state and warnings against “the belief that radical acts of will can transform the world without degenerating into brutality” and a prudent reminder “that force cannot create a humane society.” I would have expected him to mention the need to wear rubbers in the rain.

I don’t know. That sounds a lot like Camus to me. What people like Camus and Aronson don’t seem to understand is that revolutions are not made as a matter of choice. They are events that are as inexorable as childbirth. When such events are on the horizon, all that one can hope for is a good midwife. That requires a strong stomach. For those with refined sensibilities, it might make sense to choose another vocation than revolutionary politics.

In My Country

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 25, 2005

Ordinarily I do not review films that I hate. However, I will make an exception for “In My Country,” a film that deals with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings in South Africa of the late 1990s and that achieves an awfulness of biblical proportions. It is of additional interest that the political and dramatic failings complement each other. This is not like a John Sayles film putting forward progressive messages woodenly. Nor is it like a John Ford western with a reactionary message wrapped in a thrilling story. It is guilty on all counts.

Basically, this is a film that exaggerates the importance of the TRC hearings. It is understandable that in the celebratory mood that accompanied the end of apartheid that such a film might be made. But with a decade of steadily degrading living conditions in South Africa and the rise of a new ANC bourgeoisie, it is disturbing to watch a film that turns these hearings into some kind of vindication of “unbuntu,” a word that can roughly be translated as the “interconnectedness of all people.” In the context of post-apartheid South Africa, a bit more “disconnectedness” might be needed, especially on a class basis.

Moreover, the characters are not believable, the dialogue is stilted, the plotting is mechanical and everything is bathed in a melodramatic schmaltz that makes one gag for air. At the critic’s screening last night, I had to resist the urge to yell out loud at the screen. I did manage one “bullshit” under my breath, however.

“In My Country” is based on Antjie Krog’s memoir “Country of My Skull.” Krog is a radio reporter and poet of Afrikaner descent. In the film, her character becomes Anna Malan, played by French actress Juliette Binoche. In the film and in real life, Krog/Malan is the quintessential liberal who understands the apartheid era as a function of bad character rather than political economy. Her father and brother are racists who don’t think twice about shooting black African cattle rustlers on their ranch, as is depicted in the film’s opening scene. She, on the other hand, wants all Africans–both black and white–just to get along together.

Set against her “Kumbaya” yearnings is Washington Post reporter Langston Whitehead, a fictional character played by Samuel Jackson, who comes across as someone to the left of the Black Commentator. When Whitehead and Malan first meet, the sparks fly as they debate whether the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings will do any good. Let’s put it this way. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn will not have to worry about being displaced in film history by this rivalry. Screenwriter Ann Peacock invented the Whitehead character as a kind of everyman, who would be “the window through which the outside world experiences the TRC.”

Suffice it to say that the Washington Post was a window through which the State Department could experience South Africa, not some ostensible “everyman.” This newspaper and the N.Y. Times did nothing to resist apartheid when it was in its ascendancy. At the time that the TRC hearings were taking place, they were covered by Lynne Duke, an African-American reporter whose articles can best be described as neutral reportage. Late in the film, a faxed article describing the apartheid years as genocidal is depicted with Langston Whitehead’s byline and his editor’s “great work” inscribed over it. “Genocidal” is certainly not the sort of word that Lynne Duke would have used and if she did, her editor would demand a rewrite–or a resignation letter.

Most of the film consists of testimony at the TRC hearings with Whitehead and Malan squabbling over their effectiveness in the evenings over beer or whiskey. Eventually they end up in the sack. Their romance has about as much persuasiveness as toothpaste commercials. We understand that Malan will eventually win the argument because everything in the film is obviously set up to demonstrate that “ubuntu” is the way to go. For example, at one hearing an African boy in the witness stand sits silently. He has not spoken since he saw his parents killed by the cops. When one of the cops approaches the boy on his knees and begs for his forgiveness, the boy gives him a big hug signaling that all is well. This is when I muttered “bullshit.”

The other major character is Malan’s soundman Dumi Mkhalipi, played by Menzi Ngubane. He is there to offer comic relief with constant boozing and suggestions to Whitehead to “lighten up.” There is not a single black African character in the film who offers an articulate critique of the TRC hearings, even though they did exist in large numbers during the period.

It is difficult to look at the TRC hearings without thinking about Nuremberg or any other War Crimes Tribunal. In South Africa cops and soldiers received instant amnesty if they fully disclosed their crimes and declared that they were following orders! That was no excuse for Eichmann and it should have been no excuse for the five cops who killed Steven Biko. All went scot-free as did Jeff Benzien in 1999, who was the master of the “wet bag” torture. Prisoners had a wet bag wrapped ever more tightly around their neck until they revealed names of their comrades. Many died of suffocation during interrogation. Benzien received amnesty in 1999 after expressing remorse.

In Cuba, they put people like Benzien up against the wall in 1959 to receive justice. This first act of the Cuban revolution was singled out as “barbarous” by the US government. Of course, what was truly barbarous was US support for Batista’s torturers over the years. Looking back at the TRC with hindsight, we can understand now that it was exactly the kind of proceeding that would be acceptable to imperialism and the local ruling classes. Instead of a clean sweep that rendered justice as part of a total emancipatory struggle, you had compromise. The ANC would be allowed to take power while multinational corporations would be allowed to continue to make super-profits out of the sweat and blood of the black proletariat.

In 1999, the South African government reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 30%. People in the highest income brackets also found their taxes reduced by R1500. These reductions were offset by reductions in social services, including compensation to the victims of apartheid who testified before the TRC.

“In My Country” was directed by John Boorman, an English director who is probably as well-meaning as Antjie Krog. He also directed “Emerald Forest,” a film about capitalist encroachment on indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest that is well worth watching. (See my review at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/emerald_forest.htm) In the production notes, Boorman says that he traveled widely in South Africa during the apartheid years and grew to respect oppositionists such as parliamentarian Van Zyl Slabbert, who saw his wife spit upon in the street by a racist. In many ways, the stance of people such as Boorman, Krog and Slabbert mirrors that of Northern liberals after the end of Jim Crow. With the abolition of legal segregation, it is possible for such people to become assuaged, especially when they see a layer of the black population rising to their own economic level–thereby vindicating the superiority of bourgeois democracy.

“In My Country” was produced by the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa Ltd, a self-financing, national development finance institution established in 1940 by an act of Parliament. The chairman of the board is Wendy Luhabe, who also sits on the board of Vodacom, a telecommunications company, along with Sizwe Nxasana. A South African website devoted to high technology reported on Nxasana’s keynote address to a recent telecomm conference. In it he says that South Africa’s telecommunications liberalization offers many new opportunities.

This is the face of the New South Africa. The black bourgeoisie sees limitless horizons while the poor get the right to sit in the same restaurant as a white. I’ll end this review with the perceptive remarks of Trevor Ngwane, a leader of the new movement to resist the kind of liberalization and privatization championed by Luhabe and Nxasana:

We managed to get rid of apartheid, at least formally, in terms of removing the racial foundation of legislation. Secondly we won the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to organize collectively for mass activism organizing unions, meetings and thing like that.

But what has been bad is that the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer in the past ten years. This is according to all social and economic indicators, both by government and non-governmental organizations.

The other thing that is more serious for the working class is that the power of the rich–the capitalists and big business–has been strengthened. What has happened in South Africa is–instead of the old ruling classes being replaced by a true people’s government, a democracy– the old ruling class has been reinforced by elements from the peoples camp. So we find that the top leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, the top leaders of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the top leaders of the communist party are all in the government or in the private sector running some big corporations. Now, some of them for the first time are owned by black people, but the bottom line is that the ruling class has not been shaken. Rather, it has been reinforced by elements from our own ranks.

So this is the problem in South Africa. This makes me pessimistic about getting rid of this phenomenon where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It looks like this trend will continue.

full: http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=11501

February 24, 2005

The Rider Named Death

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:38 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 24, 2005

“The Rider Named Death” is based on “Pale Horse,” the memoir of Boris Savinkov, a member of the terrorist wing of the Russian Social Revolutionary Party (S.R.). Despite the party’s name, the S.R.’s were hostile to Marxism and proletarian revolution. As is often the case, ultraleftism and reformism went hand in hand with the S.R.’s. Despite their extremist origins, S.R. leader Alexander Kerensky attempted to rule Russia as a conventional capitalist politician in 1917.

No doubt acknowledging Savinkov’s martial skills, Kerensky put him in charge of the War Ministry and also made him military governor of Petrograd. His political differences with Kerensky led Savinkov to resign from his government posts in 1917. He was expelled from the party that year as well. Following the path of many S.R.’s, Savinkov joined the White Army with the goal of establishing a military dictatorship. The terrorist skills that he once used against Czarist officials were now used against the Soviet’s. While in Soviet custody in 1925, he committed suicide by jumping out a window in Cheka headquarters, an act depicted in the final scene of the movie.

Boris Savinkov becomes “Georges” (Andrei Panin) in Karen Shakhnazarov’s thinly fictionalized film version of Savinkov’s memoir. (Despite his first name, Shakhnazarov is a male.) The film focuses on a series of terrorist acts carried out by Savinkov/Georges’s circle in 1906. The conspirators include: Vanya (Artem Semakin), a cherubic-faced youth who seems more driven by Christian idealism than the class struggle; Fydor (Rostislav Bershauer), an illiterate peasant who is consumed with rage against the aristocracy; and Erna (Ksenia Rappoport), a bomb-maker who is in love with Georges.

“The Rider Named Death” is not very concerned with historical background or social analysis. It is a moral and psychological study very much in the vein of Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed.” Georges openly admits to his co-conspirators that he kills out of boredom rather than to further the goals of his party. In a pivotal scene, he recounts a tale once told to him by a Belgian officer stationed in the Congo. Across the river, there are “black savages” who he shoots at for sport. Furthermore, if the natives capture one of the Belgian soldiers, they will cut off his head–presumably out of the same spirit of boredom. It is difficult to figure out whether Shakhnazarov exaggerates the apolitical character of Savinkov/Georges’s terrorism, or whether this is an accurate portrayal.

Whatever the case, it is certainly safe to assume that Savinkov was habituated to “propaganda of the deed.” The final third of the film is consumed with his circle’s plot to assassinate Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich in 1906, despite the instructions of the S.R. central committee to put an end to terror. It has decided that it would be more productive to push for constitutional reform. The film’s inability to put the year 1906 in any kind of historical context is symptomatic of its overall failure to provide a fully developed analysis of S.R. terrorism. Only one year earlier, Russia underwent what amounted to a dress rehearsal for 1917. Millions of Russians took to the streets in a struggle to overthrow Czarism. Under such conditions, any efforts to act above their heads as self-appointed executioners of hated Czarist officials would be highly suspect. If anything, it would make Savinkov’s vendetta against the Duke appear even more perverse–but, conversely, more credible since it would illustrate his contempt for mass action.

By choosing to dramatize the life of such a repellent character, Shakhnazarov runs the risk of all such enterprises. When you make a film about a singularly unattractive character, the audience has to make an effort to care whether he lives or dies. In the final scene, when Georges hurls himself out the Cheka window, you are relieved that this tawdry tale is finished. To Shakhnazarov’s credit, he makes the film entertaining despite it being based on such an unsavory character. His attention to period detail is meticulous and his reconstruction of bomb-making and bomb-throwing is an achievement in itself. This is a film that nearly compensates for character underdevelopment through sheer technical prowess. Andrei Panin’s depiction of Georges is flawless, no matter the problems with the portrayed character. With a striking resemblance to Jon Voight, he assumes a reptilian scowl through most of the film that also bears a striking resemblance to Voight’s own villain performances.

The interesting question is what made Shakhnazarov choose this material for the basis of a film. In an interview with the Moscow Times, he reveals that it was Savinkov as existential type that interested him, not the question of terror per se:

“Of course terror is a highly pressing, topical subject. Yet it was not the subject itself but the hero that attracted me. Savinkov’s is an extremely credible, true-to-life hero. It’s been a long time since I saw any such types, including in the cinema. Yes, he is a terrorist and killer, but he is a person in mental agony, a person torn asunder by conflict within. Incidentally, he might even not have gone in for terror but been, say, just a military officer. This makes no difference. It is simply that this kind of character pushes the level of debate several notches higher. It’s irritating that in the present-day world the level of public debate on any subject keeps slipping, getting trivialized all the time. Global problems – life, death, the meaning of life – seem to be on their way out. Yet they are so vital you can’t pretend they don’t exist.”

In a follow-up question, the Moscow Times asks if Georges is a Raskolnikov of the 20th century, an unrepentant killer. Shakhnazarov’s answer is highly revealing insofar as it points to the limited perspectives of the contemporary Russian intelligentsia:

“The point is not whether he is repentant or not. He is affected by a conflict that came with the 20th century. After all, what was the late 19th century? On the one hand, there was Dostoyevsky, but on the other, there was Nietzsche. Two poles. Dostoyevsky said: If there is no God, anything goes. And Nietzsche discarded morality. Georges, just like any person of the early 20th century, was affected by these two conflicting trends. And they smashed him to pieces.”

How odd that Karl Marx was not considered important enough to mention. Or maybe not so odd, considering the way in which a debased Marxism became the official religion of the USSR. From the Marxist perspective, S.R. terrorism was not so much a question of morality but one of effectiveness. Revolutionaries forsook terror, not because they went through some kind of conversion but because they thought it was an obstacle to making a revolution. One such Marxist who went through a political evolution was Lenin himself. He rejected terrorism not long after his brother was hung for plotting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.

Although Azef (Vasiliy Zotov) is a minor character in the film, he probably occupies as important a place in Russian history as Savinkov. He is Georges’s “handler,” who transmits messages from the central committee. In 1909, it was revealed that Azef was a police agent. This led Leon Trotsky to write “The Bankruptcy of Individual Terrorism,” an article that in all likelihood has never been read by Karen Shakhnazarov, let alone registered on his radar screen.

From “The Bankruptcy of Individual Terrorism”:

For terrorists, in the entire field of politics there exist only two central focuses: the government and the Combat Organisation. “The government is ready to temporarily reconcile itself to the existence of all other currents,” Gershuni (a founder of the Combat Organisation of the SRs) wrote to his comrades at a time when he was facing the death sentence, “but it has decided to direct all its blows towards crushing the Social Revolutionary Party.”

“I sincerely trust,” said Kalayev (another SR terrorist) writing at a similar moment, “that our generation, headed by the Combat Organisation, will do away with the autocracy.”

Everything that is outside the framework of terror is only the setting for the struggle; at best, an auxiliary means. In the blinding flash of exploding bombs, the contours of political parties and the dividing lines of the class struggle disappear without a trace.

And we hear the voice of that greatest of romantics and the best practitioner of the new terrorism, Gershuni, urging his comrades to “avoid a break with not only the ranks of the revolutionaries, but even a break with the opposition parties in general.” The logic of terrorism

“Not instead of the masses, but together with them.” However, terrorism is too “absolute” a form of struggle to be content with a limited and subordinate role in the party.

Engendered by the absence of a revolutionary class, regenerated later by a lack of confidence in the revolutionary masses, terrorism can maintain itself only by exploiting the weakness and disorganisation of the masses, minimising their conquests, and exaggerating their defeats.

“They see that it is impossible, given the nature of modern armaments, for the popular masses to use pitchforks and cudgels – those age-old weapons of the people – to destroy the Bastilles of modern times,” defence attorney Zhdanov said of the terrorists during the trial of Kalyaev.

“After January 9 (the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre, which marked the start of the 1905 revolution), they saw very well what was involved; and they answered the machine gun and rapid-firing rifle with the revolver and the bomb; such are the barricades of the twentieth century. ”

The revolvers of individual heroes instead of the people’s cudgels and pitchforks; bombs instead of barricades ­ that is the real formula of terrorism.

full: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/Trotsky/againstterrorframe.htm

(The Rider Named Death is scheduled to open in NYC in late March. Recommended only to those with an interest in Russian history.)

February 22, 2005

Honored for hilarity

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:29 pm
The Glorious Revolutionary Federation of Fortune 500 Killers announces a new weekly feature: interviews with our rank-and-file. Our first interview is with Comrade Louis Proyect. Comrade Proyect is a programmer at Columbia University, and a former member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He operates the famous marxmail.org mailing list. He is also known for
hilarious missives on culture and politics, available at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mypage.htm.
Recently, the Federation honored Comrade Proyect with a Glorious Revolutionary Lifetime Achievement Award in Consciousness Raising for his efforts. The Federation spoke to him recently.
Question: Comrade Proyect, thanks for doing this interview. Could you tell us a little bit about your life and political history?
full: http://www.pressaction.com/

February 21, 2005

Hunter Thompson

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:31 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head yesterday. He was 67. While the reports don’t refer to a suicide note, it is safe to assume that a lifetime of drugs and booze had taken their psychic toll. Since he had also been in severe pain from back surgery, an artificial hip, and a broken leg, it is possible that suicide was chosen as a relief from physical pain. In some ways, his departure evokes Spalding Grey jumping off the Staten Island ferry. Both men were icons of the post-Vietnam era, who made good livings telling stories about themselves and their turbulent times.

Along with the politically conservative dandy Tom Wolfe, Thompson was a pioneer of “new journalism,” which tried to blur the lines between fiction and journalism. In Thompson’s case, this meant projecting himself as a major character in whatever he wrote about, from presidential politics to motorcycle gangs. It also meant striving for a more literary effect that is common in journalism, especially the neutral tone that accompanies the newsweeklies and papers like the NY Times. Hunter Thompson’s packaging of conventional liberal thinking with purple prose has parallels with Norman Mailer’s post-1960s journalism. Both men in fact were sought after guests on late night television.

Although Thompson carefully cultivated the image of a rebel, he was actually very much a product of the mainstream media. He lived in Aspen, Colorado, a resort town favored by the super-rich. He started out as a copy boy for Time Magazine, but made his reputation in the pages of Rolling Stone, a magazine that epitomized the co-optation of 1960s counterculture.

It was always difficult to figure out whether New Journalism could be relied on to present nothing but the facts. For example, in 1990 Thompson reported that while waiting for a Jimmy Carter speech to end, he went out to the car for a handful of pills and a quart of bourbon. Supposedly, when FBI agents spotted a small arsenal in his open trunk, they didn’t worry about an assassination attempt after discovering his identity. Instead they spent the night drinking with Thompson and comparing weapons. Don’t blame me if I find this hard to swallow.

It is not too difficult to see the influence of Hunter Thompson on P.J. O’Rourke, a “bad boy” of the ultraright. O’Rourke is infamous for traveling around to various 3rd world cities and reporting on the disgusting natives to his frat boy fans. Although Hunter Thompson has a reputation for progressive politics, he was not above locker room taunts at the outcasts of bourgeois society himself. In a fawning tribute to Thompson on marccooper.com, we discover this quote from 1994: “Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? Agnew was right. The press is a gang of cruel faggots.” It is interesting that Thompson was using language like this as late as 1994. One wonders if he would have used the word “nigger” as freely. It is also interesting that Cooper would not feel troubled by such language. I guess that as one begins to drift into the neoconservative camp, a sure sign that you are “one of the boys” is a willingness to show that you are not “PC”. I myself am PC when it comes to language like this.

The other thing that comes to mind is the possibility that Hunter Thompson’s brand of “gonzo journalism” might account for the problems of people like Stephen Glass, who had trouble separating fact from fiction, while interjecting himself into his sensationalistic tales. In a piece on software piracy for the New Republic, he threw this business about a prior job into his story:

“For all practical purposes, the male rats were my employees. I paid good studs with extra food. Bad studs got two warnings and were then terminated (with no severance pay). I threw myself into my work. I became a master of rat love. I even tested the effect of music on sex: Indian is better than classical which is better than jazz. Other researchers would bring me their celibate rats, begging me to use my powers of rodent romance. When all else failed, I would pimp one of my most prolific Don Juans to frustrated colleagues. The other researchers were grateful.”

Oh, sure.

Although not as egregious a case as Stephen Glass, Boston Globe reporter Mike Barnicle was forced to resign in 1998 when it was revealed that he had made up numerous columns, like one involving two children, one white and one black, who became friends after being hospitalized with cancer.

Like any other fad, New Journalism is not what it once was. Tom Wolfe decided that straight out fiction was more to suitable for his gifts, such as they are, and now writes novels pretty exclusively. Norman Mailer is pretty much retired and Thompson had begun to imitate himself in recent years, relying on hackwork for the sports outlet, espn.com.

Like many other conveyors of conventional liberal thought, Thompson felt compelled to denounce Ralph Nader last year: “I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, but I won’t make that mistake again. The joke is over for Nader. He was funny once, but now he belongs to the dead.” I’ll not comment on the unintended irony.

February 18, 2005

Thomas Brown and the bastard Piscataways

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:36 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 18, 2005

We make our debut in the far west, where the snowy mountains look down upon us in the hottest summer day as well as in the winter’s cold; here where a few months ago the wild beasts and wilder Indians held undisturbed possession – where now surges the advancing wave of Anglo Saxon enterprise and civilization; where soon we fondly hope will be erected a great and powerful state, another empire in the sisterhood of empires…

Fondly looking forward to a long and pleasant acquaintance with our readers, hoping well to act our part, we send forth to the world the first number of the Rocky Mountain News.

–Rocky Mountain News, April 23, 1859.

To give you an idea of how shameless this disgusting rag is, they include this openly racist crap on their website: (http://denver.rockymountainnews.com/aboutus/creekjoa.shtml)

The newspaper’s founder was one William T. Byers. Showing that he was dead serious about the advancing wave of Anglo-Saxon civilization subduing the wild Indians, he called for the extinction of the Cheyenne in 1861. After Cheyenne leader Chief Black Kettle had signed a “peace treaty” (in reality, a surrender of all their land and rights at the point of a cannon), his people chafed at the miserable hunting afforded them after resettlement and began to launch forays against the colonizers. Cheered on by Byers, Colonel Chivington made a speech on August of 1864 that included these infamous words: “…kill and scalp all, little and big… nits make lice.”

This rancid newspaper has basically been leading the campaign to fire Ward Churchill. If you go to the Rocky Mountain News website, you will find 139 (!) items that mention Ward Churchill. The charges against him are now focusing on his academic credentials, since it is becoming obvious that it is not possible to fire somebody for making unpopular comments about 9/11.

It should also be noted that the U. of Colorado administration is working behind the scenes with the Rocky Mountain News and a hate radio outlet, according to today’s Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Newly released documents show that a vice chancellor at Boulder urged other administrators to hire Mr. Churchill in 1990, even though he did not have a doctorate. He earned tenure the next year, bypassing the usual six-year review. The documents were released by the university to Dan Caplis, a talk-show host on a Denver radio station, who shared them with the Rocky Mountain News.”

Colorado Indynews reports that Caplis was paid off to attack Ward Churchill:

An anonymous tipster working with, what was referred to as, a “faith-based think tank”, claims that KHOW/Clear Channel’s Dan Caplis accepted a “gift” from the unnamed group to spread the biased Ward Churchill story in an attempt to “frame the left”, the anti-war movement, and the 9-11 truth movement into “one package”. The person also stated this was a ploy to set-up an “Ideological Enemy” on “American Soil” and to re-invent Ward Churchill as a “sacrificial lamb”

full: http://colorado.indymedia.org/feature/display/10164/index.php

Of particular use to the Rocky Mountain News is the article by Thomas Brown that has circulated widely on the Internet, which charges Churchill with not substantiating allegations that the US army distributed smallpox blankets to the Mandan Indians in 1837. Brown has been cited in four separate Rocky Mountain News articles this month. Typical is this 2/8 contribution by Paul Campos:

Thomas Brown, a professor of sociology at Lamar University, has written a paper that outlines what looks like a more conventional form of academic fraud on Churchill’s part. According to Brown, Churchill fabricated a story about the U.S. Army intentionally creating a smallpox epidemic among the Mandan tribe in 1837, by simply inventing almost all of the story’s most crucial facts, and then attributing these “facts” to sources that say nothing of the kind.

It should be mentioned that Campos, a law professor at the U. of Colorado, has also attacked Churchill for going too far in his remarks about 9/11. In an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox-TV show, Campos said “that if he engages in conduct, including publishing things that bring into question his professional competence that the University of Colorado,” his employer can “sanction him for behaving in that fashion.”

So we are talking about a rather well-organized cabal at this point, involving the U. of Colorado administration, a law professor who makes himself useful to Bill O’Reilly, a Denver hate radio personality allegedly paid for his services, Commentary Magazine and a newspaper that has the temerity to include an item hailing Anglo Saxon civilization’s triumph over the wild Indian. As I told Thomas Brown on crookedtimber.org, when you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.

Recently Brown joined Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list to make his case. (I should mention that whatever my disagreements with Henwood in the past, he has played a very positive role in stressing the “an injury to one is an injury to all” nature of the Ward Churchill controversy.) When asked by Henwood why he chose to launch his assault on Churchill at the very moment this carefully orchestrated neo-McCarthyite attack was being organized, Brown gave a highly revealing reply, which can be read in its entirety at http://mailman.lbo-talk.org/pipermail/lbo-talk/Week-of-Mon-20050214/003589.html:

Brown writes, “I made the essay public now as a gift to the left, so that it would not be necessary to line up behind Churchill on the free speech issue.” With gifts like this, one might actually prefer a smallpox blanket. You can get vaccinated against smallpox; it is much more difficult to protect oneself against McCarthyism.

When he characterized Ward Churchill’s politics as “irredentist” on LBO-Talk, Charles Brown [no relation, as Charles was anxious to point out] questioned the relevance of this term to land claims by American Indians. The irredenta included Trentino, Trieste, Istria, Fiume, and parts of Dalmatia before WWI, areas that had a majority Italian population but that were not under Italian state control. The Italian nationalist movement to reclaim these areas agitated to enter World War I.

Today, it is a term that has largely reactionary connotations. That Brown would apply it to a movement that, for example, fought for control over the Wounded Knee reservation is singularly perverse. It reminds one of Malcolm X’s observation that “The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make a criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal.”

Although Brown fancies himself as some kind of expert on American Indian affairs, nearly everything he writes is tainted. In a paper on his website (http://hal.lamar.edu/~BROWNTF/PISCATAWAY.HTML) titled “Ethnic Identity Movements and the Legal Process: The Piscataway Revival,” Brown seems consumed with the need to sniff out the true racial make-up of the Piscataways, something that is consistent with his burning desire to prove that Ward Churchill is not a real Indian. He writes:

A comprehensive examination of the Maryland courts’ handling of bastardy cases reveals consistent patterns that allow us to infer the race and class status of defendants whose status is not specified in the record. Free servant women who bore bastards by slaves were charged with bastardy, and punished by having their indentures extended and their children bound out until age thirty-one. Free servant women who bore bastards by free men were charged with a lesser offense–fornication–and received a more lenient punishment.

There are only four cases of free servant women charged with bearing bastards by Indians on the Western Shore (and some of these may well be East Indians, not native American Indians). These women were given the lesser charge of fornication. Thus when Wesort progenitors were charged with bastardy instead of fornication, and punished accordingly, it is a clear indication that the father was a slave–not an Indian. And no Piscataways were enslaved. In fact, none of the Wesort progenitors were ever identified as Indians in the colonial records. The courts’ treatment of the Wesort progenitors’ mixed-race unions in the bastardy proceedings clearly indicate that they involve people of African and European descent, and not Indians.

My goodness, all this talk about bastardy and fornication. One imagines that if fascism ever comes to the USA, and if there are job openings in a new agency charged with the responsibility to define pure-blooded Americans, that Thomas Brown will be first on line.

February 16, 2005

The Downfall

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:58 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 16, 2005

A film depicting Adolf Hitler’s human side is attracting crowds and stirring debate in Germany.

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Der Untergang (The Downfall) portrays the final days of the fuehrer’s life in his Berlin bunker in 1945. Released in September, it has become one of the best-selling films in Germany, with 400 copies in circulation and attendance of more than 750,000. It has also stirred debate.

On Nov. 18, the film received Hamburg’s Bambi prize as the best German film of the year. Former chancellor Helmut Kohl handed the award to Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler. Der Untergang has also been nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film.

At the core of the controversy surrounding the film is its portrayal of Hitler as a human being, rather than a monster. While Berlin falls in an apocalyptic bloodbath outside his bunker’s walls, the dictator is seen eating pasta, praising his cook, charming his secretary, patting his dog, crying and kissing Eva Braun. Should this be permitted?

German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki praised Der Untergang on the television talk show Berlin Mitte as “important, significant and very well made,” and suggested that it ought to be shown in all German schools. Film director Wim Wenders, in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, condemned the film as a trivialization of history. It didn’t take a stance on Hitler or fascism and encouraged the viewer to sympathize with the dictator, he said.

Adding to the controversy, right-wing extremist Karl Richter revealed last month in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that he and as many as 20 other neo-Nazis had acted in the film as SS officers, Wehrmacht soldiers and members of the bunker’s inner circle. Richter, chief editor of a monthly far-right publication, lauded the film as the beginning of a shift in the historical perception of Hitler.

(Montreal Gazette, November 26, 2004)

“The Downfall” opens this week in New York City. As might be expected, critics are more concerned with the film as film rather than with its deeper implications about German politics and history. This review will have something to say about the former, but concentrate on the latter.

Unquestionably, “The Downfall” is a very good movie. To begin with, Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler is one of the more spellbinding performances in recent years. Oddly enough, it evokes Klaus Kinski’s portrayal of the conquistador Aguirre in Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God.” Although these sorts of characters are thorough villains, a good screenplay, directing and acting can command one’s attention no matter how repulsive the character.

In the production notes, Ganz–who is actually Swiss–explains how he captured Hitler’s voice. He eschewed the public speeches, but instead studied a one-of-a-kind seven-minute magnetic tape of Hitler chatting at a dinner party, secretly recorded by a Finnish diplomat and smuggled from Germany during the war.

Ganz’s Hitler is a mercurial personality, given to maudlin acceptance of his impending doom followed rapidly by volcanic bursts of anger directed at his top officers. No matter how bleak the situation they describe to him, he responds that a counter-offensive is in the works and that Bolshevism and Jewry will be destroyed once and for all.

“The Downfall” includes all of the major figures around Hitler: Eva Braun, Joseph Goebbels, Albert Speer, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann and General Alfred Jodl. Although none of them are portrayed in a positive light, every effort is made to humanize them. Basically, they appear as members of a kind of suicide cult. Hitler’s bunker might remind one of Jonestown, if one were not aware that Hitler and his henchmen–unlike Jim Jones–were the greatest mass murderers in history.

Of a more problematic nature is the portrayal of Ernst-Gunther Schenk, a Nazi physician who runs afoul of his higher-ups who are determined to fight it out with the approaching Russian army even if it means that the civilian population of Berlin will die in vast numbers. The always useful (at least on films) World Socialist Web Site notes:

“In Downfall, the doctor Professor Schenk, through whose eyes we see the suffering of the wounded, exudes the humanitarian selflessness of a Red Cross medical orderly. In fact, Schenk had been a member of the Nazi SA since 1933 and later held senior posts in the SS and Wehrmacht. He was instrumental in installing an herb plantation in the concentration camp of Dachau. Hundreds of internees died in the course of their forced labour on the project. He used other camp prisoners as human guinea pigs for experiments in which many lost their lives. The film’s depiction of his humanitarianism has more in common with Schenk’s own memoirs than reality.”

Another denizen of Hitler’s bunker who remains somewhat sympathetic is Traudl Junge, the fuehrer’s young and fresh-faced secretary, whom he treats like a daughter. She adores Hitler, but not on an ideological basis. This naïve woman eventually flees from the bunker on a bicycle along with a teenage boy who has decided to not risk his life fighting against the Russian troops. When you see them pedaling away on a country road, your feeling is one of relief.

The film is actually based on Junge’s memoir “Until the Final Hour” and German historian Joachim Fest’s “Hitler’s Bunker.” Junge herself was the subject of the fascinating documentary titled “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary,” which is available now on DVD/video. I watched it a couple of days after seeing a critic’s screening of “The Downfall.” Junge (now deceased) was 81 when the documentary was made and still appeared mesmerized by Hitler. While offering up obvious observations about how terrible Hitler was, she still gushes over his charisma and his tenderness toward her. The events in “The Downfall” follow her narrative pretty much to the letter. The general effect of both films is repulsion, no matter the readiness of some neo-Nazis to embrace the film as an endorsement of their goals. If anybody would decide to join a neo-Nazi movement on the basis of watching this grotesque suicide cult, then neo-Nazism surely has no future in Germany.

When you turn to the work of Joachim Fest, however, the verdict on Hitler’s legacy is both less obvious and more troubling. Although not quite as prone to his colleagues’ excesses, Fest belongs to the neoconservative current in German historiography that emerged in the 1980s as a reaction to what was perceived as a demonization of Hitler. Andreas Hillgruber, Ernst Nolte and others saw Nazism as evil, but not something that was exceptionally evil. They even proposed that it was a defensive, if perhaps excessive, reaction to the gulags. The “Historikerstreit” (historian’s dispute) that broke out in 1986 coincided with Reagan’s laying of a wreath on a Waffen SS headstone in Bitburg the year earlier. Although this was widely regarded as PR gaffe, the political imperative that drove it was essential to the final battles of the Cold War. To rally the people against Communism and to reunite the nation, Helmut Kohl understood that German nationalism must be legitimized once again. For that project to succeed, any lingering guilt about the war on Bolshevism had to be overcome.

Hillgruber’s “Two Kinds of Destruction: The Shattering of the German Reich and the End of European Jewry” appeared in 1986. In a September 6th review in the NY Times, James Markham observed: “One of the book’s central theses is that the partition of Germany, through the loss of its eastern territories to the Soviet Army was a war aim developed by Churchill as early as 1941. By twinning the collapse of Germany’s eastern front and the Holocaust, Mr. Hillgruber implicitly invites a moral comparison between the two events.”

In a 1980 lecture, Ernst Nolte justified rounding up Jews and shipping them off to concentration camps as a defensive measure. Why? It appears that Chaim Weizmann had made a statement in 1939 that, according to Nolte, argued “in this war the Jews of all the world would fight on England’s side.” This, Nolte says, “could lay a foundation for the thesis that Hitler would have been justified in treating the German Jews as prisoners of war [or more precisely as, as civilian internees like the Germans in England from September 1939, or U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage from 1941 to 1945] and thus interning them.

Nolte and other such “revisionists” were frequent contributors to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a conservative daily newspaper that Joachim Fest edited. When Jurgen Habermas and other left-leaning scholars lashed out at the neoconservatives, Fest came to their defense. In the August 29, 1986 FAS, he laid out an argument that is central to the revisionist school, namely that Hitler was driven to extremes by the Russian Revolution. In other words, Nazism was a defensive although excessive measure.

Fest quotes a 1918 speech by Martyn Latsis, a Latvian Jew who was a Cheka official: “We are in the process of exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class.” From this quote, Fest concludes that the Bolsheviks were determined to carry out a genocide on a class basis rather than a race basis. Since his remarks are generally not available in the original but from a version that appeared in Harrison Salisbury’s “Black Night, White Snow: Russia’s Revolutions, 1905-1917, we don’t really know what Latsis was getting at. It is far more likely that he meant that their property had to be *liquidated* on a class basis, rather than exterminated as individuals. Of course, for the rich, this is a fate worth death.

What’s missing, of course, from Fest’s calculation is any engagement with Russian history. Except for measures taken against the Czar’s family in order to preempt a restorationist movement, the first thing that the Bolsheviks did was abolish capital punishment. During the civil war, terror was certainly employed but it was not applied on some sort of class/income basis. If you fought with the Whites, you risked retaliation. The bourgeoisie feared the Bolsheviks not because their lives were in danger, but because their property was. German big business turned to Hitler, not because he would save them from extermination but because he would make sure that they would continue to enjoy profit-making.

In 1977, Joachim Fest got his first shot at making a Hitler film. Based on his 1976 biography of Hitler, the documentary “Hitler–A Career” played to capacity crowds. A July 23, 1977 Washington Post article expressed the same kind of reservations that have been made about “The Downfall.” It states, “What makes this film dangerous, though, and this is an assessment shared by several critics, is its fixation on Hitler, a man of boundless energy, its neglect of the circumstances of his rise to power, its failure to mention some of Hitler’s closest advisers like Schacht and Speer. The evil perpetrated by Hitler is given no more than a cursory glance; concentration camps–the words are mentioned once, but you don’t see much of them. There are vague references to SS terror, but no visual evidence to bring home to the viewer how the Nazis, and not just Hitler, stifled all opposition, terrorizing their subjects into submission.”

Indeed, such a film has probably never been made, although there is a pressing need for one given the dangerous drift of US capitalism. Such a film, fictional or non-fictional, would spell out how German big business turned to Hitler as a last resort. It would also show how Great Britain and the United States were tolerant of Nazism as long as it focused on stopping Communism. It would demonstrate how American corporations did business with Hitler, even after WWII had begun. It would also drive home the all-important political point that as long as there is private property, there will be a propensity to fascism as a final solution to the threat posed by socialist revolution. With US capitalism facing challenges from other capitalist powers and with the need to maintain an adequate profit margin, you will see continuing military adventures abroad and assaults on living standards at home. No matter how much patriotism is driven down our throat on Fox-TV and at football games, sooner or later working people will be forced to respond. In the final battles that await us in the future, it will be essential to study the lessons of Germany and avoid mistakes that were made in the past. Our survival and that of all humanity rests on that.

February 15, 2005

Arthur Miller

Filed under: literature,swans — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Arthur Miller
One of our Greatest Political Artists

by Louis Proyect

(Swans – February 14, 2005) Arthur Miller, one of our greatest political artists, died at the age of 89 on February 11, 2005. Although none of his other plays received the critical acclaim of “Death of a Salesman,” his reputation could rest on this one work alone. Whatever his sixteen other plays, including “The Crucible” or “The Price,” might have lacked in craftsmanship they more than made up for in terms of political and social insight. For Miller the ultimate goal of a work of art was to provide some kind of lesson for humanity. If some critics in this age of postmodernist irony deemed that old-fashioned, Miller was content — as we on the left should be — to adopt the stance embodied in Dante’s: “Segui il tuo corso e lascia dir le genti.” This dictum, which Marx cited in the opening pages of Capital, means “Go your own way and let people talk.”

Although his father was a wealthy garment manufacturer, the Depression would reduce the family to poverty. Like fellow New Yorker and Jew Howard Zinn, Miller eventually went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a hotbed of labor radicalism. Like Zinn, Miller never joined the Communist Party but was content to speak out against injustice on his own. Zinn’s medium was history and Miller’s was the theater. Both knew who the enemy was and refused to be cowed into political submission, standing up to witch hunters in the 1950s and ’60s. Now with efforts afoot to launch a new McCarthyism against dissidents in the academy, such as Ward Churchill or Mohammad S. Alam, the heroic example of earlier resisters should serve the movement well.

In 1949, just as the Cold War and McCarthyism were taking shape, Miller took Broadway by storm with “Death of a Salesman,” a play that attacked the capitalist system without naming it as such. His Willy Loman is the tragic figure of the modern age. Unlike the Kings of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, this Loman — a low man both figuratively and literally — has very little to fall from his place at the beginning of the play and the rock-bottom that awaits him. His tragic flaw is not so much hubris (or pride) but in a naïve belief that anybody can make it in American society. As a salesman he is the critical link in the circulation of commodities. With nothing going for him except a smile and a willingness to put up with rejection, the salesman can climb his way to the top. Loman falls eventually because he is growing old and losing a step. In a climactic scene, when he discovers that his boss has no use for him any more, Willy cries out “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away…a man is not a piece of fruit.”

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy23.html

February 12, 2005

Genocide and intentionality

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 12, 2005

Apparently there’s a professor named Ralph Luker who is kind of upset because I have not given the proper respect to Henry Farrell and Timothy Burke at the Crooked Timber and Cliopatria blogs. These are group blogs run by left-leaning academics, with at least one non-academic on Crooked Timber.

Luker himself is the author of “The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912,” which is ranked #694,883 at amazon.com. I am not sure whether he reaches a bigger audience through book sales or though visits to the Cliopatria blog, but we are not talking public intellectual in the Edmund Wilson or Manning Marable sense.

In any case, I wasn’t aware that Luker was aware of my existence until I noticed a bunch of referrals to my blog from the Cliopatria website. Usually the referrals are from Ken McLeod or Lenin’s Tomb, so I was curious to see why people would be going to Unrepentant Marxist via Cliopatria. It’s not as disconcerting as the referrals I get from http://www.navy.mil, etc., but I had to wonder what was up.

After strolling over to Cliopatria, I discovered that Luker was raking me over the coals, which I really don’t mind. I rake people like him over the coals nearly every day, but at least I have the common courtesy to cc them when I do.

Luker wrote this:

But there are Lefty trolls, too, of course. David Salmanson and I ran into one – Louis Proyect – at Crooked Timber the other day. Proyect is an obscure former Troskyite, a computer technician at Columbia University, and the manager of a Marxist listserv. When Henry Farrell criticized Tim Burke’s critique of Ward Churchill’s work and cited Burke’s response to that criticism and Thomas Brown’s essay criticizing Churchill’s claims about the Mandan Indians and the smallpox epidemic of 1837, Proyect trolled. Farrell and Burke were “mediocrities” and Farrell a “useful idiot.”

full: http://hnn.us/blogs/2.html

Luker feels that he and his co-thinkers are vindicated because I became persuaded that Ward Churchill had failed to back up his charge that smallpox blankets were used as biological weapons against the Mandan Indian in 1837. He is not happy, however, that I was far more disturbed by a kind of holocaust denial that is implicit in Thomas Brown’s attack rather than Churchill’s faulty scholarship.

He writes:

What interests me about the way Churchill, Malkin, and some of Churchill’s apologists use history is that if you can find a precedent for an action in the past (Malkin’s Japanese internment; Churchill on Lord Amherst’s use of smallpox) it becomes, on the one hand, a convenient excuse for similar action in the present; or, on the other hand, justification for blatant distortion of history because we know that there was holocaust intent anyway. Proyect makes his support of Churchill’s holocaust argument quite explicit here. If you doubt it, you are a “holocaust denier” and, yet, Proyect is finally persuaded that, in this case, the evidence denies it. Think about it. If past precedent justifies present action or blatant distortion of the historical record, we can repeat the 19th and 20th century’s horrors; and we have, indeed, bought the post-modern notion that all the world’s merely a text, to be construed as we will.

Trying to decipher such clumsy prose is a daunting task.

To start with, the opening sentence is typical overloaded academic prose that one scratches one’s head to make sense of: “What interests me about the way Churchill, Malkin, and some of Churchill’s apologists use history is that if you can find a precedent for an action in the past (Malkin’s Japanese internment; Churchill on Lord Amherst’s use of smallpox) it becomes, on the one hand, a convenient excuse for similar action in the present; or, on the other hand, justification for blatant distortion of history because we know that there was holocaust intent anyway.”

Whenever you see a 74 word sentence that tries to make a number of divergent points, you can only conclude that the author is struggling to make a point but lacks the command of the English language to accomplish. Or, you can also conclude that the author’s ideas are just half-baked. Finally, it may be the case that the author wants to conceal his true meaning. Luker seems guilty on all counts, but I would not recommend a jail sentence. I am really quite liberal on the topic of free speech.

For Luker, the criterion of intent is critical to people like Ward Churchill and me. But I specifically said that I come at the question differently from both Brown and Churchill, who both believe that intentionality is key. For me, it is not so important. As a Marxist, the question of what is in the mind of a particular colonist is not so important. I am far more interested in the objective, structural effect of certain virulent strains of colonialism than I am in what is in the mind of the colonizer.

For example, Gerald Colby and Charlotte Dennet’s “Thy Will Be Done: the Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil” makes clear that the genocidal attack on indigenous peoples who stood in the way of oil exploitation was based at least partially on liberal ideology. The Standard Oil family was liberal, but they made common cause with Wycliff missionaries. In other words, you had the same lethal combination of the dollar and the bible that was visited on people like the Mandan.

Now it doesn’t really matter what was in the mind of Rockefeller or the Wycliff missionaries. When you systematically destroy the means of reproduction of an entire people in the pursuit of profit, it is no excuse that you meant them no harm. Capitalism’s course among hunting and gathering peoples has been genocidal worldwide. In distinction to primitive accumulation among more advanced peoples (speaking strictly in terms of the means of production) like the Chinese or the Indians, the effect on the North American Indian, the South Pacific islanders, the native Australian, etc. has been genocidal. Among anthropologists on the left like the late Stanley Diamond, this is not controversial.

Among people who appear to have a commitment to denying that there was a genocide against American Indians, it is controversial. To repeat myself, I feel that 90 percent of the hatred directed toward Churchill is a function of this rather than a failure to adequately document events that took place in the Dakotas 168 years ago.

February 10, 2005

The Mandan smallpox outbreak of 1837

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:29 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 10, 2005

After having had a chance to review all of the material cited by Ward Churchill in relation to the Mandan smallpox outbreak of 1837, I am now persuaded that none of it supports his allegation that the US military conspired to infect them. In other words, the model of Lord Amherst, who did use smallpox blankets as a military weapon against American Indians in 1763, does not apply.

My interest in this is not as somebody trying to defend the integrity of the Ivory Tower, since Churchill’s sins pale in comparison to what I have seen around me since my undergraduate days. I am far more concerned about the impact this has on American Indian activism, because it is essential that movements for social change be beyond reproach when it comes to such matters. Our exemplar should be somebody like Howard Zinn, who despite being criticized often for matters of interpretation (see Michael Kazin’s assault in the Spring 2004 Dissent), has never been challenged when it comes to matters of fact.

It would appear to me that Churchill was driven to invent a conspiracy where none existed because it served his overall interpretation of the American Holocaust, to use David Stannard’s term. Since he has so much invested in a comparison between Nazi Germany and the USA, he was tempted to posit the sort of conscious and deliberate extermination that took place at Auschwitz on American soil. In this scenario, smallpox blankets occupy the same place as Zyklon B. A genocide did take place, but it did not follow the same pattern as in Nazi Germany.

But before I go into this, I want to turn my attention first to an article by Thomas Brown, a Lamar University sociology professor, whose debunking of Churchill on the Mandan epidemic has been circulated widely on the Internet by individuals who want to see him fired. Some of these individuals also seek to see him prosecuted for treason, which carries the death penalty. Although it is unfortunate that Thomas Brown (who would seem to be satisfied with Churchill only being prosecuted for perjury–a mere slap on the wrist by comparison) has seen fit to publish his findings during such a hysterical atmosphere, it is still incumbent on the left to address these questions right now.

One thing that Brown shares with Churchill is the framing of the question. For both professors, genocide involves deliberation. It would also seem to involve motive, since economic motives surely drove openly genocidal attacks on Indians in the past. When Andrew Jackson coveted land in Georgia and adjoining states for cotton production, he expelled the Cherokees in what can only be described as a genocidal attack. But for Brown, no such parallel obtained in the Dakotas in the 1830s:

“What if the U.S. Army had been active in the region? Given the opportunity, would Army officers have had any motive to use biological warfare against the Mandans? Five years earlier, in 1832, Congress passed an act and appropriated funds to establish a program for vaccinating Indians on the Missouri River. Given this Congressional mandate to protect Indians from smallpox, given the lack of hostilities between the U.S. military and the Mandans or any other Plains Indians at that time, and given the military’s lack of presence in the area of the Mandans at the time, Churchill’s version of events does not seem at all plausible, even in the context of counterfactual speculation.”

While it is true that there was a “lack of hostilities” in the sense of Little Big Horn, etc., there were inexorable economic processes taking place that were destroying the way of life of the Plains Indians. If today we can hold capitalist corporations responsible for threatening Indians in the Amazon Rain Forest with genocide through mere profit-making, then there should be no problem looking back at the 1837 period from the same perspective. Sometimes you can kill people with Zyklon B, but you can kill just as easily by forcing them to adopt a mode of production that is inimical to their existence.

“The High Plains Smallpox Epidemic of 1837-38” was written by Clyde D. Dollar for The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan., 1977). I doubt if anything more probing has been written elsewhere. Dollar rejects conspiracies and instead describes the outbreak as an epidemic that was waiting to happen.

Drawing upon the journals of Francis A. Chardon, who ran the trading post at Fort Clark, Dollar describes a pathetic scene of rat infestation and hunger. In the month of May 1837, Chardon killed 108! This suggests that trading post living engendered an accumulation of trash and filth that was one of Western Civilization’s dubious benefits, along with Rattus norvegicus, which came off the boat with other Europeans in 1755. The Mandan villages were also gripped by near-famine conditions, which Dollar attributes to “prolonged and promiscuous hunting of Buffalo, and other game.” In other words, it should come as big as a surprise that such villages suffer from a smallpox (or cholera, etc.) outbreak as in any other country that suffers from economic dislocation and poverty.

Although it would be another 30 years before the openly genocidal attacks on the Plains Indians, the 1830s were marked by the growing dependency on such peoples for goods at outposts like Fort Clark that were traded for hides. Rudolf Kurz, an employee at nearby Fort Union in the 1830s, wrote: “Now that he is acquainted with articles made of steel, such as knives, axes, rifles, etc., with tinder boxes, blankets, all sorts of materials for clothing and ornamentation, and with the taste of coffee, sugar, etc., he regards these things as indispensable to his needs; he is no longer content with his former implements, but regards ours as incomparably more comfortable to him.”

With the introduction of horses, the slaughter of Bison accelerated. With the sale of hides in exchange for such goods, you saw an upward spiral of hunting for trade rather than for sustenance. It also led to stepped up hostilities between different Indian groups. All this for coffee and sugar.

In other words, the same exact threat that exists today with respect to people like the Yanomami existed back in the 1830s. Today, we have both the benefit of hindsight and the organized presence of groups dedicated to indigenous rights. Back in the 1830s, we had neither. We had instead a frontier capitalism that would go to any lengths to produce profits.

In a December 6, 1813 letter to Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Jefferson concluded that Indian support for Great Britain would “oblige us now to pursue them to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.” Andrew Jackson made good on that promise.

The American genocide combined open and deliberate attacks of the sort Jefferson was alluding to, as well as the kind of indirect onslaught that accompanied the accumulation of capital. If we look solely for confirmation of a genocide in the first case and deny the reality of the latter, we will be no better than the David Irvings of the world. Whatever Ward Churchill’s sins as a scholar, he can not be accused of this. It would be most unfortunate in the backlash attending his remarks on 9/11 that elements in the academy opportunistically seek to advance their own “revisionism” on American history.

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