Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 9, 2006

Insulting Turkishness

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

Sooner or later I expect to run into Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk on the Columbia campus, where he is a visiting scholar. (He was also here in that capacity from 1985 to 1988.) Whatever garlands bestowed upon him by my employer, I have yet to meet a single Turk who is a fan of his novels. I suspect that they resent his pronouncements on Turkish oppression of national minorities, even though they are by no means ultranationalists themselves. They probably question his use of the same Western platforms that often oppose Turkey being admitted to the European Union in the name of “civilization” and “human rights”. A double standard is obviously at work since the West has been far bloodier than Turkey over the centuries.


Orhan Pamuk

There were obvious political calculations involved in awarding the Nobel Prize to Pamuk who is seen as a bridge-builder between the West and the East. His fame did not prevent him from being put on trial in Turkey after telling a Swiss newspaper last year that 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians had been killed during World War I under the Ottoman Turks. Such statements constitute “insulting Turkishness”, which is punishable under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code as follows:

1. Public denigration of Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.

2. Public denigration of the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security structures shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.

3. In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country the punishment shall be increased by one third.

4. Expressions of thought intended to criticize shall not constitute a crime.

After the case generated terrible publicity for the Turkish government worldwide, the charges were dropped. Since the ruling Islamic party came to power in a challenge to the secular nationalist Kemalist establishment that had been identified historically with such laws and since it was anxious to build commercial ties to the West (its religious values are wedded to conventional neoliberalism), it had little incentive to see Pamuk behind bars.

Whatever attraction Europe once had for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), it might be rapidly evaporating under a new propaganda offensive from the West against Islam. When the Pope dredged up a 14th-century Christian emperor’s quote about the Prophet Muhammad bringing the world only “evil and inhuman” things, there was bound to be resentment across the entire Muslim world. But the Pope had already singled out the Turks as a group beforehand. He warned that admitting Turkey to the European Union would go against history:

The roots that have formed Europe, that have permitted the formation of this continent, are those of Christianity. Turkey has always represented another continent, in permanent contrast with Europe. There were the [old Ottoman Empire] wars against the Byzantine Empire, the fall of Constantinople, the Balkan wars, and the threat against Vienna and Austria. It would be an error to equate the two continents…Turkey is founded upon Islam…Thus the entry of Turkey into the EU would be anti-historical.

Recently France passed a new law that seemed inspired by Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. You can now get a year in prison and a 45,000 Euro fine for denying that Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks after the First World War. The Socialist Party was a driving force behind the proposed bill. It now joins the 2001 law that officially recognized the Armenian genocide. There are upwards of 500,000 people of Armenian descent in France organized into a powerful political lobby.

By the evidence of the new documentary “Screamers” that I saw in a press screening last night, there are moves afoot to get the American government to officially recognize the 1915 massacres as a genocide as well.

With backing by the BBC, it profiles System of a Down, a metal-grunge rock band composed entirely of young Armenian men who are very involved with this campaign. Their presence and that of survivors of the 1915 massacres give the film considerable power.


“Screamers” is practically a concert tour as we see the band playing to adoring fans around the world as they promote their new two-record set “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize”. In the song “P.L.U.C.K”, they obviously refer to their peoples’ history:

A whole race Genocide,
Taken away all of our pride,
A whole race Genocide,
Taken away, watch them all fall down.

Revolution, the only solution,
The armed response of an entire nation,
Revolution, the only solution,
We’ve taken all your shit, now it’s time for restitution.

One of the more moving moments of the film involves band member Serj Tankian visiting his 96 year old grandfather Stepan Hayapan at a nursing home. Interviews with Haypayan from a few years earlier, when he was in better health, are scattered throughout the film. He still had vivid memories of his family being driven from Efkere and left to die in a long march into the desert not that much different than the one endured by Cherokees in the 19th century. He was the sole survivor.

Unfortunately their contribution is undermined by the presence of Samantha Powers and Peter Galbraith as commentators. Director Carla Garapedian decided to make more than a movie calling attention to this historical injustice. She wanted to prove that it was the mother of all genocides and that without 1915, there never would have been a Jewish holocaust or other genocides. There are multiple references to Hitler’s dictum that “Who remembers the Armenians?” Unfortunately, there are no references to another of Hitler’s inspirations:

Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa And for the Indians in the Wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination-by starvation and uneven combat-of the ‘Red Savages’ who could not be tamed by captivity.

(John Toland, “Adolf Hitler”, p 802)

Sadly, Garapedian’s long-time association with BBC must have inured her to Anglo-American imperialism’s bloody past. She apparently sees evil everywhere in the world except in the British Empire and its Yankee offspring. She has trained her camera in the past on Taliban cruelty toward women, Russian troops killing Chechens, cannibalism (alleged) in North Korea and most recently repression of the student movement in Iran. In other words, her beat is the “axis of evil”.

In the press notes, Garapedian poses the question “Why do genocides continue in the 21st century”? Her answer: “Because those who perpetrated them the 20th century got away with it”. There is another question that never gets posed in “Screamers” and which seems far more useful in terms of avoiding genocide, namely “What are the causes of genocide?” One must certainly understand the root of genocide before one prevents them. Rather than arguing about the need to stop a Hitler before he exterminated the Jews, it is better to ask why Germany ended up with Hitler in the first place. That involves an examination of underlying social, political and economic factors that are never found in “Screamers.”

The title of the film refers to the act of screaming against genocide, something we are to understand Peter Galbraith and Samantha Powers excel at. With all due respect to Armenian suffering, this strikes me as arrant nonsense.


Peter Galbraith

As American Ambassador to Croatia from 1993 to 1998, Galbraith was the quintessential hawk who makes frequent references to the bloody, internecine battles in Yugoslavia as another example of “genocide”. Such hyperbole undercuts the film’s effectiveness since this designation was applied solely by the NATO officials bent on war with the Serbs. In an April 9, 1999 Lars-Erik Nelson Daily News column, holocaust survivor Menachem Rosensaft dismissed comparisons between Hitler and Milosevic: “It’s total hyperbole to make a political point. It does a disservice to the memory of the Holocaust, and it also devalues the suffering of the Albanians if we suggest that to be worthy of our consideration their suffering has to be on the level of the Holocaust.”

This is not to speak of Israel’s failure to get behind the Armenian cause. If this Mideast “democracy” cannot see the connection between Hitler and the 1915 massacres, then who can? Of course, the failure to make such a connection might have more to do with the kind of power politics decried by the film than anything else. Since Turkey is the only country in the region that recognizes Israel, it has offered a quid pro quo by refusing to characterize the 1915 events as genocide.

When Galbraith turns his attention to Iraq, the disjunction between professed ideals and sordid reality is even more extreme. In recounting the deals made between the first Bush presidency and Saddam Hussein at the expense of Kurdish rights, Galbraith rues the way in which power politics once again interfered with acting against genocide. If only the Bush administration had listened to him and enacted sanctions against Iraq, then the Kurds would have been spared. One wonders if Galbraith had ever learned of the death of a half-million children as a consequence of such sanctions when they were finally imposed.

Samantha Powers runs Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, where Michael Ignatieff, a fervent backer of the war in Iraq, could be found as well until he moved to Canada to jumpstart a political career. According to the press notes, Powers’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” demonstrates how “all the subsequent genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries date back to our simple inability to admit what the Turks did to the Armenians.”


Samantha Powers

In an article dealing with the prowar left, Edward Herman calls attention to all the massacres that Powers leaves out her book: Vietnam, Indonesia 1965-1966 when a half-million citizens were killed by the US-backed military, the slaughter of Guatemalan Indians backed by the U.S.-backed dictator, etc.

Powers gets particularly worked up over the genocide against the Tutsis and the one allegedly being organized in Darfur (other more neutral observers hesitate to use the word in the latter case), the only solution to which is armed intervention. In her lengthy Atlantic Monthly, September 2001 article titled “Bystanders to Genocide“, there is not a single word that addresses the underlying cause of the killings that are universally described as genocidal. “Screamers” includes grizzly footage of severed heads in Rwanda, but in keeping with Powers’s approach does not say a word about what led to the mass killing.

But From 1973 to about 1990 Rwanda was relatively peaceful. This had little to do with the Rwandan people remembering what happened to Armenians 1915 and much to do with the generally stable price of coffee and tin.

The same thing is true of Nazi Germany. Without hyperinflation and mass employment, you don’t get Hitler. And without the IMF-induced collapse of the Yugoslav economy, you don’t get the civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.

From her Olympian redoubt at Harvard, it is all so easy for Samantha Powers to moralize about man’s inhumanity to man. She would be better advised to dig into the economic history that accompanies mass murder since this is the key to avoiding it in the future.

Speaking of the Ivory Tower, one should never forget that institutions like Harvard University were not exactly on the front lines when it came to confronting Nazism in the 1930s. In an article by Rafael Medoff of the The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies that appeared in the October 26 Columbia Spectator, we learn:

Harvard, for example, hosted Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., Hans Luther, in 1934. Harvard President James Conant gave a red-carpet welcome to Hitler’s foreign press chief, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstangl, when he visited the campus that year (for his 25th class reunion). The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, even urged that Hanfstangl be given an honorary degree “as a mark of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country.” The university also hosted a visit by Germany’s Boston consul-general, Baron Kurt von Tippelskirch. He took part in a ceremony honoring Harvard graduates who had died while fighting in the German army in World War I, and laid a wreath featuring the infamous Nazi swastika.

My own employer’s actions with respect to the Nazis were equally troubling.

At the invitation of the Columbia University administration, Nazi ambassador Hans Luther spoke on campus in December 1933. Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler also hosted a reception for him. When students protested, Butler insisted that Luther represented “the government of a friendly people” and therefore was “entitled to be received … with the greatest courtesy and respect.” Ambassador Luther’s speech focused on what he characterized as Hitler’s “peaceful intentions.”

Columbia also insisted on maintaining friendly relations with Nazi-controlled German universities.

Somehow I doubt that Harvard or Columbia will ever have to make amends for such behavior since institutions such as these are much better at telling the rest of the world how it should live than setting an example themselves.

November 7, 2006

Saturday Night Live

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

After reading Dennis Perrin on the two new NBC shows based on Saturday Night Live, I decided to review them myself. Not that I am in the same league with Dennis, who wrote a 429 page biography of the late Michael O’Donoghue, a SNL writer and performer. It is a major chore for me to read a book of that length, let alone write one.

As is the case with many Americans, SNL was very important to me when I was young (I no longer watch it and I am no longer young.) I was also very good friends with Chevy Chase, who had a big influence on the show when it, like Woody Allen movies, was really good.

So let me start with a few words about Chevy.

Chevy arrived at Bard College one or two years behind me (I can’t be more exact since we are talking about more than 40 years ago.) He had either flunked out of Dartmouth or was forced to transfer because of bad grades. Since Bardians tended to affect a low-rent bohemian style incorporating Gaulois cigarettes and ratty turtle-neck sweaters, Chevy’s preppy appearance put people off. Although many students remained resistant to his charms, I took an instant liking to him because of his sense of humor, especially his ability to laugh at himself.

He arrived at the same time as Kenny Shapiro, a short, overweight and extremely obnoxious show business professional of some standing who tooled a brand-new Porsche around campus. In the early 1950’s, Sid Stone–a pitchman for Texaco on Milton Berle’s show– was often interrupted by an attention-craving 7-year-old in a clown’s suit. Stone’s tagline was “Go ‘way, kid, you’re bodderin’ me.” That kid was Kenny Shapiro. Not only had he made a fortune from his Berle appearances, his parents had become fabulously wealthy in the garment business after they came out with the official Davy Crockett coonskin hat.

Kenny and Chevy lived on the same floor of Ward Manor (a mansion overlooking the Catskill Mountains) as me, where I had agreed to serve as dorm president. The two of them and Lane Sarasohn, who was a year ahead of me, would play home-made tapes of their own comic skits at extremely high volume all through the night. The rest of the dorm got so fed up that they prevailed on me to get them to tone it down. I knocked on Shapiro’s door and told him to have a little respect for his neighbors or I would report him. This was about as close as I came to being a cop in my entire life.

I had a totally different connection to Chevy than his future show business partners. We played ping-pong a lot–he was great at it–and listened to music together. We both ended up in Jacob Druckman’s harmony class. He never did his homework and got a D, but his classroom exercises in polyphony sounded beautiful.

Although clownishness is generally associated with funny looking people like Groucho Marx or Woody Allen, Chevy loved being laughed at. The pratfalls that he perfected on SNL had premiered on the Bard campus. He was the master of goofy walks and cross-eyed grins. I thought it was great that he defied expectations about how a tall, handsome man should behave. The only other comic actor who had this knack was Cary Grant, who Chevy labeled as a homosexual on the Tonight show in a lame attempt at humor. Grant sued him, but they settled out of court.

Lane, Kenny and Chevy were all in love with Blythe Danner, another friend of mine. (I should add that I have had no contact with these people in over 40 years.) She ended up with Shapiro, who was a good 6 inches shorter than her and the classic frog to her princess. Always the show business hopeful, she was obviously attracted to his resume more than anything else.

Years later I discovered that the Ward Manor tapes formed the basis for a 1967 off-off-Broadway show called “Channel One” that was a satire on television performed on closed-circuit TV’s throughout the theater. Shapiro, Sarasohn and Chase worked on it, as did Bard dropout Richard Allen who was the funniest of them all in my opinion. You can watch a clip of the show (a sophomoric swipe at the foppish Bard literature professor Paris Leary, now deceased) on Sarasohn’s website.

In 1974 “Channel One” was turned into the movie “Groove Tube.” You can watch one of the funnier skits on YouTube. Dressed as a businessman in a pink suit with a briefcase, Shapiro dances manically through the Manhattan financial district to the tune of “Just You, Just Me”. There are other very funny skits and the film is well worth ordering from Netflix or at your well-stocked video store.

Shapiro and Chase collaborated one more time on the 1981 film “Modern Problems” that I have never seen. Reviews on IMDB indicate that it was even worse than some of Chevy’s other disasters. Shapiro seems to have found his true métier in television where he has served as technical director (a non-creative job that involves camera coordination, etc.) for a number of situation comedies, including “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

In 1975 Chevy landed a job as writer and performer on SNL. To give credit where credit is due, I am quite sure that Shapiro’s comedy worked its way into SNL through the medium of Chevy Chase. Although I am by no means an expert on the history of the show, I would assume that the initial inspiration came from the Harvard Lampoon and Shapiro’s movie. I would be very surprised if the idea for the “Weekend Update” news segment that featured Chevy and Jane Curtin did not owe a lot to “Groove Tube,” which arguably was the very first satire directed against television. Shapiro did not have a political bone in his body, but he certainly had a keen sense of the absurdity of the medium he grew up in. Chase took that insight and married it to the larger radical culture of the period, one in which the spirit of the 1960s still loomed large.

This is a flavor of the sort of thing that Chevy was doing in the Weekend Update:

Chevy Chase: Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not. The top story tonight: The Senate Intelligence Committee has revealed that the CIA has been involved in no less than nine assassination plots against various foreign leaders. Commented President Ford upon reading the report, quote, “Boy, I’m sure glad I’m not foreign.”

Later, Mr. Ford pierced his left hand with a salad fork at a luncheon celebrating Tuna Salad Day at the White House. Alert Secret Service agents seized the fork and wrestled it to the ground.

Former Governor of California Ronald Reagan formally announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday. Reagan stated, quote, “I haven’t lost my looks yet, and I’m still as knowledgeable on foreign affairs as I was when I was narrating Death Valley Days.”

Meanwhile in Miami, a man tried to attack Reagan with a fake pistol a few short hours after the announcement. Reagan said he was not shaken, but later, he about-faced on an issue that he strongly opposed for years, calling for strenuous toy gun control legislation.

Well, after a long illness, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died Wednesday. Reactions from world leaders were varied. Held in contempt as the last of the fascist dictators in the West by some, he was also eulogized by others, among them Richard Nixon, who said, quote “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States. He earned worldwide respect for Spain through firmness and fairness.” Despite Franco’s death and an expected burial tomorrow, doctors say the dictator’s health has taken a turn for the worse.

Although SNL has continued with the Weekend Update segment to this date, I cannot believe that they have the sharpness of the excerpt above. I also imagine that this kind of material must have had a strong influence on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Speaking of Colbert, you can see him at the podium for a Chevy Chase roast that took place in 2002. As most of you know, the honoree of a celebrity roast is treated to an evening’s worth of insults. Colbert is nearly as lacerating as he was to George W. Bush. He describes Chevy as a cautionary tale of what happens to a comedian when they repeat themselves over and over. They become a shadow of themselves. Although Chevy has a broad smile on his face during Colbert’s riff, I have a feeling that is only to keep from crying.

Chevy made a ton of money in Hollywood but the experience has left him impoverished artistically and psychologically, as has been the case with most SNL performers who have gone that route. Some have fared better than others. Eddie Murphy has made some rather good comedies, while others have simply taken their SNL skits and padded them into a full-length feature. I know them only by their not very good reputation.

Perhaps endowed with the broader perspective that only is afforded by geographical distance, Montreal Gazette critic Stephen Whitty summed up the changes this way on October 30, 1994:

Producer Michaels had never been as scruffy as his stars; he preferred white sweaters, society parties and $ 12-a-bottle Chablis (billed to “Props,” of course). But when Michaels left in 1980, producers for hire and NBC execs arrived, looking for bigger profits. The drug humor went cold turkey. The political humor was thrown out. Goodbye “Jane, you ignorant slut.” Hello “You look mahvelous.”

If the ’80s were about money, so was the show, and it went from a $ 750-a-week showcase for underground talent to an audition spot for I-am-outta-here-baby stars. Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy, Jim Belushi, Billy Crystal, Martin Short – all went on to movie careers and most never looked back. Of course, Chase and Aykroyd and Belushi and Murray had all gone to Hollywood, too – who wouldn’t? But they had built the show while they were on it and they left something behind.

In a November 3rd article on television satire, NY Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley found SNL lacking especially in comparison with a competition that includes Jon Stewart:

“S.N.L.” is now in its 32nd season, and, not so surprisingly, it is no longer the lodestar of political comedy. The series long ago ceded cutting-edge lampoonery to smaller, nimbler cable shows on Comedy Central like “South Park” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which spent the week before the election in Ohio for the Midwest midterm “midtacular.”

And unlike “The Simpsons,” which has stayed consistently acerbic and funny for more than 16 years, “S.N.L.” has slumped and soared since its heyday in the era of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. The show can idle for several seasons, then suddenly a new talent — Eddie Murphy in 1981, Will Ferrell in 1995 — snaps the comedy back into the limelight. Ratings falter, as do the jokes, but except for occasional sports events, “S.N.L.” remains the most-watched series on Saturday nights. It can still be funny, even though it seems tamer, more wedded to television parodies and celebrity impersonations than inspired lunacy.

Given its 30 year domination of network television, it was perhaps inevitable that it become the subject of two new weekly shows: the situation comedy “30 Rock” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, a more competent, serious and politically informed drama.

Perrin nails “30 Rock” perfectly:

Fey’s show is so lightly written that it merely drifts from scene to scene, unconnected to anything intellectually solid. In fact, for a project that’s supposedly Fey’s personal showcase, Fey herself is pretty beside the point. Baldwin and Tracy Morgan own “30 Rock” and bring to life whatever life is to be wrung from those weak scripts. I suspect that wasn’t the idea going in, but who knows. And apart from me, Lance, and assorted comedy geeks here and there, I don’t see what audience “30 Rock” is trying to reach.

The best thing about this show is Alec Baldwin who gets better as an actor the older he gets. His performances stood out in Scorsese’s flawed “The Aviator” and “The Departed”. The second best thing is the omission of a laugh track, something that has the same effect on me as Kenny Shapiro’s tapes had on the denizens of Ward Manor. It makes me want to climb the walls.

The one episode I watched incorporated the same kind of contempt for an ordinary working stiff that has marked SNL for the past 20 years at least. (Since the show was conceived by Lorne Michaels, the long-time producer of SNL, and veteran SNL peformer Tina Feay, it is not surprising that it shares the show’s peculiar idea of what’s funny. As the cutting edge was no longer directed at the rich and powerful, it was redirected toward waiters and clerks.) The episode tried to make comedy out of the hazing carried out by the show’s Black star against a lowly white assistant who worships him. He sends the assistant to Yankee Stadium to pick up some nachos knowing full well that it is closed for the winter. I suppose it does mark some degree of social progress that a Black can degrade a white in this fashion, but the humor was lost on me.

Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey

“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is directed by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the “West Wing,” a popular show that featured Martin Sheen as a liberal American president. Despite the critical acclaim, I never watched it–mostly because the premise did not interest me. It struck me as a celebration of Hollywood liberalism, something I have absolutely no use for.

I am happy to report that “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is extremely well-written and acted. The underlying premise about the making of a weekly comedy show like SNL is almost incidental to its real concern, which is about the intersection of big business and entertainment–to the detriment of the latter.

Last night’s episode revolved around the difficulties the show’s writers and directors were having with network “standards” that prohibited the use of the word “Jesus” as an oath–as in “Jesus Christ, it is hot today.” A top executive explains to the show’s creators that they have to be careful on matters such as this since the entertainment industry is run by people who are not liberal. The corporate boards of the top television networks are interested in nothing but profits. If anything threatens that bottom line, they will eliminate it. As it turns out, this has certainly been a factor in the taming of SNL, as evidenced by the uproar over Sinead O’Connor’s tearing up of a photo of the Pope.

Back when Chevy Chase was reading the news on “Weekend Update,” he had a gag that “Generalísimo Francisco Franco is still dead!” I am not sure if the show still begins with the tagline “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” but considering all the changes that have taken place over the years one is tempted to replace them with “Saturday Night Live is still dead!”

November 6, 2006

Wendell Phillips on the Paris Commune

Filed under: media — louisproyect @ 3:37 pm

While looking for incriminating evidence of bias on the Paris Commune in the NY Times archives for the year 1871, I came across the occasional exception to the rule, including statements from Karl Marx’s First International. The one that really floored me, however, was this commentary on an article in the National Standard by Wendell Phillips the erstwhile abolitionist. It starts:

“Today every letter-writer [ie., correspondent] from Europe caters to the worst prejudice by lying about the Commune. Who are the letter writers? Nine out of ten of them instinctively know what will please their employers. They are sure to find what they were sent to seek.”

In other words, the bourgeois media was doing the same thing in 1871 that it does today. Oh well. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

You can read the commentary on Phillips’s article here. Just make sure to scroll down to read the beginning of the article, which begins beneath the continuation for some odd reason.

November 5, 2006

La Commune

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

I am very happy to report that Peter Watkins’s “La Commune” is now available in DVD/Video. This six-hour film, which originally appeared on French television, joins Sergei Eisenstein’s “10 Days that Shook the World,” Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers” and Herbert Biberman’s “Salt of the Earth” as a classic study of working people trying to win their freedom.

Perhaps its greatest achievement is the way it makes this 135 year old struggle relevant to more recent ones, which was clearly the intention of its director Peter Watkins. As I sat watching it at the edge of my seat, practically breaking out in a cold sweat, I could not stop thinking about my visits to Nicaragua in the late 1980s when the country was like somebody hanging on to the edge of a cliff by their fingers. “La Commune” demonstrates that this is both the blessing and the curse of all revolutions. They are simultaneously great strides forward toward freedom and huge risks almost tantamount to Russian roulette.

Several years after the Sandinistas were ousted, Carlos Vilas, an Argentine sociologist and supporter of the revolution, spoke at a meeting in New York. I will never forget how he characterized it. It was like doctors in a delivery room with no electricity during an earthquake. When working people try to take power, they are not only faced with their own inexperience as masters of society, they are faced with the immediate hostility and open sabotage of the old ruling classes. I have never seen a film that conveys this dilemma as well as “La Commune.”

Watkins’s best known film is the 1965 “The War Game,” which is a faux news report on a nuclear war. “La Commune” uses the same technique. Imagining television as having been invented by 1871, it presents two reporters from a people’s TV station interviewing National Guardsmen (the volunteers who defended the Commune), workers, women, students on one side and their bourgeois adversaries on the other. One of the film’s major themes is how the media is used to frame reality on a class basis. Although this film was made in 1999, it anticipates the great divide that would take place in Venezuela 3 years later when private television and newspapers were used as a battering ram against Hugo Chavez’s progressive government. As counterpoint to the two sympathetic reporters, “La Commune” features reports from a mainstream television reporter who has all the unctuously obnoxious qualities of a Jim Lehrer or a Brian Williams. Thinly disguised as “objective” journalism, the reports are dripping with the kind of class hatred found in media coverage of Hugo Chavez’s “Bush/Devil” speech to the United Nations.

Back in 1871, the Paris Commune was greeted with the same kind of outrage that Daniel Ortega encountered in the 1980s (and still does today, despite his political retreat) and Hugo Chavez meets today. Here is what the New York Times said on May 25, 1871:

Its friends claim that “the bloody vengeance of the Monarchists” will not blot out the Commune from the memory of the future. This is perfectly true. It has gained during the last two days an ignominy so colossal that future generations will be compelled to ransack the records of Mohammedan fanaticism for its parallel. Its sins against civilization are manifest, its sins against liberty will shortly be made equally apparent. The cause of municipal freedom has received for the present generation the stamp of insane license.

The cast of “La Commune” consists entirely of 200 non-professionals drawn from Paris and its suburbs, including a number of undocumented workers from North Africa. Before filming started, they read background material on the Paris Commune and thought about its relevance to their lives and to contemporary society. A number of them are interviewed in the excellent documentary on the film, including an Algerian who lives in the suburbs that exploded in anger last year over joblessness and neglect. “La Commune” is filled with truly revelatory historical details, including the way in which the reactionary Versailles government dispatched the same army against a revolt in Algeria immediately after it had vanquished the Commune. Although the jailed Communards (those who did not face the firing squad) received amnesty in 1880, the Berbers remained imprisoned on New Caledonia.

“La Commune” has a distinct look and feel that is much different from what you might be accustomed to. All of the action takes place indoors in an abandoned factory leased for the occasion. Although the sets give a reasonable approximation of the 11th arrondissement, a working class bastion, they serve more as they would in a theater than in a film. Most of the verisimilitude stems from the remarkable ability of the nonprofessional actors to appear like the Communards through remarkable wardrobe choices. With their ordinary-looking if not rough-hewn faces filmed in black-and-white by hand-held cameras, they have the same vividness as 19th century photographs.

In contrast to more the recent period when the left has tried to reconcile itself to religion, usually through the medium of “liberation theology”, “La Commune” gives no quarter to the Catholic Church, which is depicted as a source of blind reaction, just as it was in the Spanish Civil War and other landmark struggles. Women, who play a decisive role and in the historical Commune, give the nuns and priests frequent tongue-lashings.

Since the Paris Commune was the first government in history to give women the vote, it was inevitable that women volunteered to fight on the barricades to protect this freedom and others. The film portrays the activities of the Woman’s Union, which pressed for women’s rights within the general emancipatory framework in a fashion reminiscent of “Salt of the Earth.”

The “La Commune” DVD package includes a 78 minute documentary on the making of the film by Geoff Bowie titled “The Universal Clock: the Resistance of Peter Watkins” that makes clear how much the making of the film was in the spirit of resistance that it depicted. Watkins made this film in the same way that the Communards made barricades, as a conscious act in defense of an alternative society. In a world grown increasingly commercial and culturally dominated by Hollywood, he made a film that championed history’s working class martyrs and the act of pure artistic creation itself.

The universal clock is a reference to the standard 47 minute documentary that is marketed to television stations around the world to fill an hour of commercial programming (and increasingly nonprofit stations as well.) Bowie films some particularly odious figures at a television production conference peddling their wares. After representative from the Discovery Network brags that their shows can be slotted in anywhere in the world, we cannot help but think of what drove French farmer Jose Bove to burn down a McDonald’s the same year that “La Commune” was being made.

After initial frustration in getting funding for “La Commune,” Watkins eventually hooked up with La Sept ARTE, a French television company willing to take risks–but unfortunately only up to a point. When the series was finally aired, the climax of the film was scheduled for 3:30 in the morning.

On Peter Watkins’s website, he conveys the thinking of “universal clock” purveyors:

Some people can make the universal clock sing at 47 minutes … others can’t. It’s perfectly possible to do the 100 Years War in 5, 10, 20 or 47 minutes … the depth of information value is not about duration, it’s about the anticipated expectation of the audience.

Some filmmakers say this is my work and I want it to stay that way. That is their right and we respect that right. Those are the films we don’t buy and those are the films we don’t transmit.

His response:

What is so disgusting – on top of everything else – is the use by TV executives of the word ‘respect’! These people have absolutely zero respect – for filmmakers or for the public. ‘Respect’ for work they marginalize, and for the public on whose behalf they make their decisions, is contempt and ridicule of the highest order.

This is absolute fascism at work, and anyone who still doubts the direct links between the contemporary MAVM [mass audiovisual media] and globalization in all its worst aspects, should carefully reflect on what is happening.

The MAVM dogma on length and form is not only GLOBALIST because of its application, but also because it directly contributes to loss of history, to the increase of hierarchical forces sweeping through society, and to a growing passive acceptance of the global economy. Without time or space to reflect, formulate questions, integrate memory and feelings into the daily experience of receiving the mass media we are lost, and history becomes dead. Time and sustained process are crucial for counteracting the frenetically fragmented and abbreviated language form of the MAVM.

“La Commune” is now available from Netflix and your better video stores. Although I urge everybody to rent it and to advise their friends to rent it as well, I particularly recommend it to the activist left. This film could serve as the anchor for a weekly series of classes on socialism. It not only dramatizes the first working class revolution in history but points in the direction of our future success in the face of obvious difficulties. If we cannot begin to unite on a class basis starting now, then the class enemy will always have the upper hand. Our survival as working people and the survival of the planet depends on it.

Peter Watkins website: http://www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins

November 2, 2006

David Schweickart versus Michael Albert

Filed under: Academia,economics — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Over the past week or so I have been watching “La Commune”, a 357 minute masterpiece of a movie by Peter Watkins about the Paris Commune. Rich in Brechtian efffects, it is both historically accurate and relevant to today’s struggles. Stepping out of character, the actors comment on media monopoly, etc. I plan to write a detailed review of this film, but am prompted to say a word or two about a debate now raging over the way to build socialism or a more just society. In my view, Marx had little to say about how future societies should be constructed and instead looked at the Paris Commune as a concrete example of workers taking power.


David Schweickart

David Schweickart is a well-known “market socialist”, an economic approach generally identified with the moribund Analytical Marxism school. It has also been supported by left economists without any particular theory, such as the late Alec Nove. I know that Schweickart has an obvious interest in the AM school as indicated by his enthusiasm for Roemer’s collection of AM essays but really have no idea whether he has both feet in that camp.

My most recent encounter with his work was prompted by the discovery that he was among the group identified by Paul Burkett and Marty Hart-Landsberg in their book-length MR article on China who still believed that the country was socialist. As is almost universally understood, a rapacious capitalism is being built in China under the rubric of “market socialism”. Only a year ago, Schweickart was swooning over China’s accomplishments: “I think it illuminating to view China as a grand attempt at constructing a viable, equitable society beyond capitalism.”

Considering the fact that even the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has been admitting that the country is growing ever more class-divided, it is difficult to understand how Schweickart draws such conclusions. It should also be mentioned that Schweickart recommends examining such societies under through the prism of “successor-system theory”:

Successor-system theory posits a form of socialism that can be shown to be, theoretically, as efficient as capitalism, more rational in its growth and far more in accord with the key human values that have developed along with capitalism, namely equality and democracy.

In a duel of rival economic system theories, Schweickart took on top-gun Michael Albert who has came up with something called Participatory Economics, or Parecon for short. He doesn’t like it very much:

Before reflecting further on the Parecon phenomenon, let me substantiate my claim that Parecon is a terrible book. It isn’t “morally pernicious,” (as are, say, the works of neo-con intellectuals and the print ravings of the Fox News and right-wing talk-radio crowd), but it can’t be taken seriously on its own terms, intellectually. The book is an elaboration and defense of an economic model that is hopelessly, irredeemably flawed.


Michael Albert

Schweickart objects to Parecon’s “balanced job complex” that equally distributes interesting, empowering tasks with unpleasant “disempowering” ones because it imposes a Byzantine administrative overhead.

We could ask everyone to perform x/2000 hours of X, y/2000 hours of Y and z/2000 hours of Z each year. Or we could construct bundles that have different proportions of the three tasks. Some tasks might involve more hours of X, in which case they would also have more hours of Z (to counterbalance the low empowerment of X with the high empowerment of Z), and, consequently, little or no Y. In playing around with numbers, we realize that there are, in fact, an infinite number of ways of constructing bundles having average empowerment. And if we have more than three tasks, we have even more options. An embarrassment of riches!

For those who are scratching their heads over such number-crunching trivia, it should be mentioned that Schweickart has a PhD in mathematics and taught it on a college level from 1970 to 1975.

Schweickart next takes up the problem of equal pay for different kinds of work in Parecon, a practice that would open doors for slackers, even if the work is evaluated by Parecon monitors. Schweickart has little use for “moral incentives”, which he describes as leading to disastrous results, such as China’s “Great Leap Forward.” Obviously, socialism can be efficient as capitalism and more rational in its growth if it dispenses with such notions and embraces free labor markets such as exist in China today. When you have a thousand dispossessed peasants competing for a job on a Nike assembly line paying pittance wages, you don’t have to worry about efficiency. The threat of starvation has a way of concentrating the mind, making the worst job seem attractive and inspiring superhuman efforts.

After solving the problem of how to motivate workers, Schweickart turns his attention to how to satisfy consumer expectations. Frankly, I could never figure out the obsession with this. People don’t make revolutions because they want to wear designer jeans rather than Levi’s. They are instead motivated by the need to stay alive, often expressed in the search for an exit strategy from seemingly endless wars, either in the trenches of Western Europe or current-day Iraq. The idea of a couple of Russian doughboys sitting in a foxhole in 1916 debating whether the Bolsheviks could make better neckties than the enemy class that was killing them is simply ludicrous.

Schweickart’s capacity for generating prose over such questions is truly impressive:

What would I like to consume this coming year? I’ve been thinking about giving up meat, so that gives me some options. I can compare what I spent on bacon with what I might spend on . . . what? Maybe soybeans. Let’s see–back to the computer to get their anticipated price per pound. Hmmm, I wonder how many pounds I’ll need. . . . I just remembered, there are some birthdays coming up. What did I spend on birthday gifts last year? What did I buy anyway? I’ll have to search back through the list. (Presumably I tagged as gifts when I bought them all the items purchased as gifts, so my computer’s search engine can locate them quickly.) How much did I spend? What do I want to buy this year–for birthdays, Christmas, wedding anniversary?

This is what happens when somebody with a shopkeeper’s mentality decides to take up the cause of socialism, I guess. Maybe we need a Marxist version of those Bridal Registries they keep at Bloomingdales.

Although I can barely keep up with Schweickart when he goes off on such tangents, it seems that Alpert eats it up and is determined to best him at his own game:

Applying all this to skirts, we should want the tastes and preferences of all workers and consumers and particularly of people who wear them and of those who produce skirts to interactively proportionately influence the length and color, as well as their number and composition, their method of production, and so on–instead of profit seeking determining the result.

Good grief. The planet Earth is facing ecocatastrophe, ceaseless imperialist war and epidemics of all sorts in the 21st century and these two geniuses are bogged down discussing birthday presents and the color of skirts.

In his conclusion, Schweickart asks, “Why have Chomsky, et al. endorsed such nonsense?” I think the answer is rather obvious, at least with respect to Chomsky. Chomsky is an anarchist. Anarchists have always concocted schemas that would compete against the messy, flawed but real examples of socialism in action. That is why Marx was so taken with Paris Commune:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant. In the full consciousness of their historic mission, and with the heroic resolve to act up to it, the working class can afford to smile at the coarse invective of the gentlemen’s gentlemen with pen and inkhorn, and at the didactic patronage of well-wishing bourgeois-doctrinaires, pouring forth their ignorant platitudes and sectarian crotchets in the oracular tone of scientific infallibility.

Against Albert’s ready-made utopia, Schweickart competes with his own ideal of market socialism, a ready-made dystopia cobbled together from Nike sweatshops and Red Bridal Registries.

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