Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 30, 2007

State capitalism: theory and reality

Filed under: economics,socialism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

(This is part of a continuing series on “Does Socialism Have a Future”. My next post will examine the state capitalist attitude toward Cuba, particularly in light of some useful research found in Julia Sweig’s “Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the urban underground”.)

In 1948, Tony Cliff defended the idea that the Soviet Union was “state capitalist” in the internal bulletin of the British Trotskyist movement. His analysis was couched in terms of Marxist fundamentals:

There is no aspect of the problem of Russia about which so much confusion has been spread as whether the economy is moved by the law of value or not. The main reason for this confusion lies in the lack of clarity as regards the definition of the law of value which leads to mistakes in the effort to locate it in the body-economy. Many of the Marxists who have dealt with Russia have ‘found’ the source of activity of the law of value even where it does not exist, while others have not found it even where it does exist. Even though we shall repeat some of the ABC of Marxism, it is necessary to sketch the essence of the law of value as a prelude to determining whether it acts in the Russian economy and, if so, how.

Tony Cliff

The “law of value” is a reference to Marx’s discussion of the circulation of commodities in Volume One of Capital. There was of course a bit of a problem in applying this law to the Soviet Union considering Marx’s emphasis on profit-making:

The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.

But this hardly describes the Soviet bureaucrats, does it? From the late 1920s until the arrival of Perestroika, the “restless never-ending process of profit-making” was alien to Soviet society, whatever else its faults. The Soviet “liberal” intellectuals of the 1980s who were so enamored of Milton Friedman bitterly complained that the state interfered with rational economic processes. As Marshall Goldman once pointed out, profit-making was considered criminal in the USSR:

In all fairness to Gorbachev, no one has yet been able to figure out how to make a successful transition from a Stalinist, centrally planned economy to a market-oriented system in a relatively short time. The Soviet-type system developed in very different ways: the market atrophied, prices became distorted, individuals hesitated to assume initiatives, and profit making became associated with criminality and antisocial acts.

According to Cliff, the capitalism that existed in the USSR was a horse of another color. Investment decisions were not made by individual capitalists on the basis of what would generate profit but by the state which owned everything and operated on the basis of ‘diktat’. This “state capitalism” was supposedly no different from the state-owned enterprises found in Nazi Germany or Great Britain’s coal, steel and railroad sector after WWII. Lenin made reference to “state capitalism” during the NEP but he was as fixated on the need for profit-making:

In view of the urgent need to increase the productivity of labour and make every state enterprise pay its way and show a profit, and in view of the inevitable rise of narrow departmental interests and excessive departmental zeal, this circumstance is bound; to create a certain conflict of interests in matters concerning labour conditions between the masses of workers and the directors and managers of the state enterprises, or the government departments in charge of them.

Trotsky was even blunter about what this meant:

Under those [War Communism] conditions we could build only though the unions … But now, when we are venturing out into the market, we cannot ‘allow’ the unions into management of production … Now we have to learn from him, from Rockefeller….


John D. Rockefeller: Trotsky advocated learning from him during the NEP

Whatever one might say about the former Soviet Union, it was certainly not about learning from Rockefeller. The USSR was characterized by an absolute indifference if not hostility to market mechanisms.

Rather than dwelling on picayune matters such as profitability, Cliff sees “state capitalism” as a kind of monopoly capitalism raised to the highest level. If the latest stage of capitalism was marked by monopolies, he reasoned that the USSR represented that tendency at its most extreme. Instead of having an economy dominated by trusts owned by private individuals, all of the trusts are combined into a single trust run by the state. As is the case with Standard Oil or any other trust, the “law of value”, which entails the drive for profits above all, is altered somewhat. As Cliff puts it:

Monopoly, by altering the exchange relations between different commodities, also alters the exchange relation between the commodity labour power arid other commodities, i.e. it changes the relation between wages and profits. Monopoly restricts the production of certain commodities in order to raise their price, so that the relation between the quantity of commodities produced by different industries is not exactly the same as that which would have existed under conditions of free competition.

If monopoly capital represents a departure from “free competition” on a national scale, it is just the opposite on a world scale. Surprisingly, Cliff cites Hilferding in order to establish that the “monopolist associations abolish competition”, but fails to include a much more relevant passage from Hilferding that found its way into Lenin:

“Combination,” writes Hilferding, “levels out the fluctuations of trade and therefore assures to the combined enterprises a more stable rate of profit. Secondly, combination has the effect of eliminating trade. Thirdly, it has the effect of rendering possible technical improvements, and, consequently, the acquisition of superprofits over and above those obtained by the ‘pure’ (i.e,, non-combined) enterprises. Fourthly, it strengthens the position of the combined enterprises relative to the ‘pure’ enterprises, strengthens them in the competitive struggle in periods of serious depression, when the fall in prices of raw materials does not keep pace with the fall in prices of manufactured goods.”

If monopoly capital eliminates competition on a national level, it only reintroduces it on an international level, with the added danger of wars being fought to protect super-profits. Once again, it is necessary to point out the obvious. The Soviet economy was flawed in many ways, but it never exhibited the kind of expansionist tendencies that Lenin described in “Imperialism, the highest stage of Capitalism”. We shall return to the question of Soviet “imperialism” momentarily but for now let’s continue with Cliff’s argumentation.

After openly admitting that “supply and demand” did not operate in the USSR, Cliff is forced to accept the conclusion that flows logically from that, “namely that in the economic relations within Russia itself, one cannot find the autonomy of economic activity, the source of the law of value, acting.” He adds, “Hence if one examines the relations within Russian economy, abstracting them from their relations with the world economy, one comes to the conclusion that the source of the law of value as motor and regulator of production is not to be found.” So if the “law of value” does not operate within the borders of the USSR, where does it exactly come into play?

The answer can be found in the Soviet arms industry that produces use values in the form of tanks, planes and battleships that serve to protect the economy from being flooded by outside competitors. Cliff writes:

If there were extensive trade between Russia and other countries, the Stalinist bureaucracy would aim at the production of such commodities as would fetch a high price on the world market, and the purchase of the cheapest commodities possible. It would then strive, as individual capitalists do, to increase the sum of values at its disposal by producing one or another use value, indifferent to which is produced, as long as it serves its end. But if the competition with other countries is mainly military, the state as a consumer is interested not in values for their own sake, but in certain definite use values, such as tanks, aeroplanes, etc. Value expresses the existence of competitive relations between independent producers. The results of Russia’s standing in competition are expressed by the elevation of use values to an end, the end being victory in this competition. Use values, therefore, while being an end, still remain a means.

This is a rather long-winded way of saying that the USSR competed with the capitalist world to have bigger guns rather than bigger profits. It is an argument that oddly enough evokes Seymour Melman or Paul Mattick’s writings on the “permanent arms economy” but neglects the Keynesian dimension found there. In Melman and Mattick, it was understood that the Western economies and particularly the US’s relied on arms manufacturing in order to stave off crisis. In Cliff’s article, arms production does not serve conventional prime-pumping needs, but only as “use values” to defend the Soviet state.

Military parades: the highest stage of State Capitalism?

I don’t want to dwell on this at any great length, but two things seem fairly obvious. Even if Stalin had never gained control over the Soviet party and state, there still would have been an overwhelming need to stay armed to the teeth. The USSR was invaded by 21 countries in 1918. Despite frequent attempts to conclude treaties with the Western powers, Marxists inside and outside of Russia always understood that they were temporary in nature. For that matter, the one person who seems to have unfounded trust in such treaties was Stalin himself who interpreted the Soviet-Nazi Nonaggression Pact as an excuse to relax the nation’s guard on the Western borders. The net result was a catastrophic loss of life and treasure.

It is not easy to gauge how deep this hostility toward Soviet arms production has been internalized by state capitalist proponents, but I have been startled more than once by outbursts from Kevin Murphy, a recipient of the Isaac Deutscher Prize last year and a darling of the American ISO and British SWP press. On the subject of North Korea having nuclear weapons, Murphy advised (I am the Stalinist idiot, btw):

Marxists are against nuclear weapons you Stalinist idiot. You worship Stalinist rulers as if they actually represent the interests of “the people”, this is just third-worldist crap that has absolutely nothing to do with Marxism. The “North Korean people” had absolutely no say on the issue of food versus famine plus “workers’ bomb”. I suspect that if that if given a choice they might have voted against starvation, but that’s just a wild assertion, not a profound apologia by a “Concerned Asian Scholar”. Good thing that the North Koreans have brain-damaged “postcapitalist” thug rulers to decide for them.

Not one of Kevin Murphy’s favorite people

I honestly wasn’t aware that “Marxists are against nuclear weapons.” My guess is that this is largely a matter of tactics. In light of the rather gingerly approach taken by American imperialism vis-à-vis North Korea, I would advise any country included in the “axis of evil” to get some nuclear weapons lickety-split. I might even look into getting one myself if there’s room in my bedroom closet. It is probably the one way to avoid the fate that befell Iraq. If Iraq had detonated a nuclear weapon about 10 years ago, I imagine that Saddam would still be in power and the Iraqi people would have been spared 4 years of hell.

Let me conclude with a few remarks on the chapter of Cliff’s treatise that is titled “The imperialist expansion of Russia” and which suffers from its almost exclusive focus on the relationship between Japan and Manchuria before WWII. As interesting as it is, it really doesn’t shed much light on the USSR and its ostensible colonies in Eastern Europe.

Anticipating criticisms from those still wedded to Marxist orthodoxy, Cliff reminds his readers that “The imperialism of every period, however, is different in its motives and results, and the use of the one word, imperialism, to describe the different phenomena is therefore liable to bring about more confusion than clarity.”

Once that disclaimer is out of the way, he launches into an extended discussion of the Japanese colonization of Manchuria. We are informed at the outset that “of all the countries in the world except Stalinist Russia, that which reached the highest centralisation of capital was Japan.” Even though Japan did not suffer from “superfluous” capital as was the case with the European powers before WWI, it still poured a huge amount of money into Manchuria and even more tellingly used a five-year plan just like Stalin. This led to rapid industrialization and the appearance that the Japanese imperialists viewed Manchuria as “an extension of the homeland”.

Russia, like Japan, was also not driven by the need to export “superfluous” capital. Its investments in Eastern Europe were like Japan’s in Manchuria, a means to expanding its economic base beyond its borders. But the Soviet Union was worse than Japan in some respects (as well as the Conquistadores) since it was not above stripping assets from its colonies:

Stalinist Russia looted all the countries of Eastern Europe and Manchuria. It did so not only by transferring factories to Russia, but also, as Nazi Germany did, by concluding barter agreements with its own vassals which were ruinous to them. The concentrated monopoly capitalism of Japan and Germany and the state capitalism of Russia thus reveal another feature characteristic of the period of the primitive accumulation of capital – that trade and plunder were indistinguishable. If Alfred Marshall could say of that time that “silver and sugar seldom came to Europe without a stain of blood”, today the looted property is much bloodier; and it is not silver or sugar that is plundered, but means of production.

I don’t want to sound like the “Stalinist idiot” that Murphy calls me, but for some reason I find comparisons between the USSR in 1945 and Pizarro and company to be invidious in the extreme. The Soviet Union suffered 27 million military casualties in WWII and another 19 million civilian deaths. This is not to speak of the “scorched earth” policy followed by German invaders that leveled farms and factories across an area larger than the entire European continent. If anything, the USSR had more in common with the indigenous peoples who suffered at the hands of the Spanish invaders. If the USSR transferred some factories from Manchuria, that seems about as grave an injustice as the Incas getting their hands on a tiny portion of the gold that was ripped from their dead bodies.

More to the point, the USSR never prowled the Earth looking for lands to conquer and factories to strip. If it hadn’t been for the disruptions of WWII, Stalin would have been content to stay within his borders “building socialism in one country”. Despite cold war rhetoric, the Soviet bureaucracy was hardly interested in projecting power beyond its borders. When Japan invaded Manchuria, it was clearly a bid to displace British rule in East Asia. When the Red Army invaded Eastern Europe, it was part of a general effort to create a buffer zone around a bleeding and devastated nation. One form of behavior was aggressive and the other was defensive. It is singularly unfortunate that Tony Cliff could not make such elementary distinctions.

Finally, Cliff’s comparison of Imperial Japan and Stalin’s Russia was based on a snapshot of historical reality in the immediate postwar period. In a few short years, the relationship between the Soviet Union and its “colonies” was unlike any that existed in the real capitalist world, as opposed to the ideological construct of state capitalist theory. Instead of “plundering” the nations of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union was subsidizing their economies through the export of oil at below market prices. Independent scholars, without any particular axe to grind on the question of “state capitalism” have provided an abundance of data to support this analysis.

To take one example, Marie Lavignie’s article titled “The Soviet Union inside Comecon” that appeared in the April 1983 edition of Soviet Studies contains a table that displays year-by-year comparisons between the price of oil that the Soviets exported to Eastern Europe and the world market price. In 1975, Soviet oil cost 37 percent of what the average barrel of oil cost in capitalist world markets. If it simply sold its oil at market prices, it would have profited in the same manner as it does today.

The need to put those unprofitable practices in the past was part of the Perestroika agenda. The Financial Times reported on December 8, 1989:

President Mikhail Gorbachev has told the countries of the East Bloc that they can travel their own roads to socialism. Will he now tell them to buy their own oil for the journey?

In recent months, the Soviet leadership has dramatically reduced its political ties with Eastern Europe’s states. At the same time, the USSR is suffering a serious shortfall in oil production, which is currently running 12m tonnes below target. So, it is no surprise to hear some members of the country’s Supreme Soviet demanding that in 1990 the USSR should cut its sales of oil and natural gas to the East Bloc, which are traditionally exchanged for Eastern Europe’s relatively low-quality goods.

If Perestroika was offered up in the name of socialism, the current regime makes no excuses. They are much more in the mold of the capitalist described by Marx in Volume One of Capital: “The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser.”


Genuine state capitalism

Using state-owned energy companies like Gazprom and Lukoil, the Russian bourgeoisie prowls the earth looking for new investment opportunities. Cliff wasn’t wrong to use the term “state capitalism”. He was just 60 years too early.

January 27, 2007

Two Asian films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:48 pm

Two films premiering soon at New York’s ImaginAsian Theater show the strong influence of Asian comic book art. Opening on February 2nd, the Korean-made “Tazza: the High Rollers” is based on the comic strip of the same name and is directed by Choi Dong-hoon. It will be followed on February 16th by “The Taste of Tea,” a Japanese film that includes ‘manga’ artists (manga is the Japanese word for comic book) as major characters and that captures the spirit of this popular art form that literally means “random (or whimsical) pictures”.

“Tazza” (Korean for ‘master’) can best be described as being in the tradition of “The Hustler” or “The Color of Money”. In these films, an ambitious young pool player seeks the advice of an older master in order to crawl to the top of the game. It is clearly understood that billiards is a metaphor for life itself.

The high rollers in “Tazza” are professional gamblers who play the card game ‘Hwatu’, the Korean word for War of Flowers. Go-ni, the young aspiring gambler, is tutored by the legendary Hwatu master Pyeong, now retired, who advises him at the outset that becoming a master gambler involves certain rules:

Rule Number One: To win, you must become a beast. Ruthlessness is a must.

Rule Number Two: Your hands must be quicker than your eyes.

Rule Number Three: No game is safe. Trust no one.

Final Rule: There are no friends for life, just as there are no enemies for life.

On his way to the top, Go-ni runs his tutor’s arch-enemy Agwee, another master gambler who is in the habit of chopping off the hand of any card player caught cheating. For those who have seen “The Hustler,” there is obviously a comparison with Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman) getting his thumbs broken after he is caught hustling.

The Hwatu master Pyeong is played by Baek Yoon-sik, one of Korea’s most respected actors, who was cast as an evil Korean industrialist in the 2005 dark comic masterpiece “Save the Green Planet“. In that film, his character was kidnapped by a young man suffering from the delusion that the industrialist was from another planet bent on conquering Earth. Go-ni is played by Cho Seung-woo, another enormously popular actor.

“Tazza” was the second highest grossing film in Korea last year. If it sounds like pulp entertainment (and what is wrong with that?), it is also veiled commentary on the Asian “economic miracle”, which like the stock market bubble was based on a gambling mentality.

In an interview with director Choi Dong-hoon included in the press notes, he recalls the 90s, the period in which the film takes place:

The original series has the late 50s to the late 60s as its time period, and, since that was an interesting time for Korean society in general, it served a great purpose in the series. But I tend to see gamblers as people who are looking to get filthy rich quick, so they can get their hands on a fancy BMW or some other outrageously expensive car and show it off to the world. In that point of view, I settled on the 90s as the time period for the movie. The 90s was a time when everyone – from rich married ladies to prominent professors to ordinary office workers – played hwatu in some form or another. On the outside, the 90s was a flashy time. The Korean society seemed more sophisticated and developed. But if you look closer, that was also the time the grand Seongsu Bridge collapsed. And people would gamble for money in secret. Basically, the 90s was a period where we all seemed grand and fancy on the outside, but were rotting and breaking down on the inside. It was also a time when virtually everyone and anyone, from the millionaire to the lowly construction worker, could play hwatu.

* * * *

While watching Katsuhito Ishi’s “The Taste of Tea,” I couldn’t help but think about “Little Miss Sunshine,” the completely overrated American film. Both films are whimsical and affectionate views of families made up of eccentrics. As is the case with automobiles, the Japanese product is far superior.

The Harunos live in a small town in the mountains just outside of Tokyo. The husband Nobuo is a professional hypnotist who puts people into trances so that they have LSD-type hallucinations that they seem to enjoy. Every so often he puts the rest of his family into trances just for the heck of it. His wife Yoshiko is a retired manga artist who is making efforts to get back into the business. Her father, also a retired manga artist who lives with them, whiles away the day singing ancient pop ballads or imitating Sumo wrestlers, especially for the amusement of the Haruno’s two children Sachiko and Hajime.

Sachiko is an 8 year old girl who leads a completely normal life except for those moments when her 60 foot likeness appears in the sky above her out of nowhere. Her brother Hajime is a high school with a raging case of hormones and a flair for the ancient board game Go. When a beautiful girl transfers into his high school and joins the Go club, he pedals home at top speed shouting the following at the top of his lungs over and over for the entire five miles: “Go club–Go–Go Club–Go!!!”

Rounding out the household is mom’s younger brother Ayano, who is there for a visit. He is a long-haired audio engineer and raconteur. Among the stories he tells to Sachiko and Hajime is that of finding a huge egg in the woods when he was a child himself. For reasons that he does not understand to that day, he decided to take a shit on top of the egg that was half-buried in the earth. Only later would he discover that it was not an egg at all but the skull of a yakuza killed by fellow gangsters. Eventually his soul begins to haunt Ayano, showing up unpredictably just like Sachiko’s 60 foot doppelganger. During his visit, Ayano is pressured into recording the hypnotist father’s brother’s birthday song for himself. The brother, also a manga artist, is accompanied by the grandfather and a female artist that works with him. In their spaceman costumes and stylized robotic dance steps, they evoke Devo, the 1970s Akron band.

“The Taste of Tea” is rather short on character development and instead is content to take things on their surface. Structured as a series of deadpan comic scenes, it relies heavily on cinematography that pays obvious homage to manga. It is also reminiscent the “low camp” that fascinated cultural critics of the 1970s and 80s, including Susan Sontag. All that is needed in key scenes is words like “Pow!” and “Gasp” superimposed across the screen, just as occurred in the Batman television series of the time.

“The Taste of Tea” is wonderful stuff but a bit long at 143 minutes.

Scheduling information for these films is at http://www.theimaginasian.com/index2.php


January 25, 2007

Pan’s Labyrinth

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

Set in fascist-ruled Spain in 1944, “Pan’s Labyrinth” tells the story of 12 year Ofelia, who has just moved with her pregnant mother to a rural villa that serves as a military outpost run by the sadistic Captain Vidal, her new husband. In the mountains just beyond the villa, he seeks to wipe out an anti-fascist militia that is fighting a rear-guard action like Apaches in the 1880s. Since Ofelia is understandably repelled by her surroundings and Vidal, who she refuses to call “father”, she immerses herself in fairy tales just as youngsters have done since time immemorial until television came along and robbed them of their imagination.

One night Ofelia is visited by a fairy that originally appeared to her in the guise of a dragonfly. Unlike the winsome creatures in a Disney animation, the fairy in Guillermo del Toro’s much heralded new film has a slightly menacing aspect, complete with flapping wings that give off a creepy mechanical sound like the tail of an aluminum rattlesnake. The fairy leads Ofelia into a dank grotto beneath the villa that is ruled by a repulsive-looking 10 foot tall faun (half-man, half-goat) who instantly hails her as the long-lost princess of this netherworld.

From the sounds of it, this could be another “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, the 2005 children’s film based on C.S. Lewis’s fairy tale. Both stories take place during WWII and feature children being sent off to a country villa. In Lewis’s tale, the magic portal is a wardrobe closet, while in Guillermo del Toro’s film, it is a staircase. In both cases, the children are guided by a faun.

In keeping with the generally upbeat Christian sensibility of “Chronicles of Narnia,” the faun–named Mr. Tumnus–is a genial comic figure anxious to please. By contrast, the faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth” is demanding and aloof. Additionally, both Ofelia and the audience would regard this creature with some suspicion since the final task that Ofelia must carry out in order to establish her regal credentials goes against her sense of right and wrong. Without giving away too much, she is asked to sacrifice someone very close to her, just as the wrathful Yahweh demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.

However, in very important ways, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is not a children’s film. To begin with, there is every reason to doubt whether the fairies and other supernatural creatures exist outside of Ofelia’s troubled mind. It is to del Toro’s great credit that he maintains a tension between fantasy and reality until the end of the film, reminding me altogether of Marianne Moore’s description of poetry as imaginary gardens with real toads. Additionally, there are many scenes in which Captain Vidal tortures his anti-fascist captives. The violence is extremely graphic.

Undoubtedly, that imaginary garden is what del Toro seeks to create–including his own giant toad. Despite the fact that the film contains many scenes that depict the heroic struggle of the anti-fascist militia, it is really about the redeeming nature of youthful fantasizing and of art, its adult counterpart. In a world that is rapidly beginning to adopt the sadistic logic of Captain Vidal, art remains a valuable form of resistance.

When del Toro was asked by interviewer Emmanuel Itier in IFMagazine.com whether we are ruled by destiny, he answered:

You need to have a pure heart. Any dream you have in life you have to fight for it and go for it, this is how you achieve your destiny and deliver yourself from your fate, that initial life that was given to you but you did not choose it. To do that right you need to do it with heart, not greed.

There is a Basque poem that says: “He was such a poor man that all he could have was money!” We live in a world, a society that makes you believe you need the big house, the big car, and the big bank account. But truly what you need is love and love you cannot buy. In my films I always try to be spiritually inspiring and this is also true with Pan’s Labyrinth. I think this particular movie stands on its own because it’s the only one that is full of love from the beginning to the end.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is now playing at theaters everywhere. Put it on your list of must-see films.

January 23, 2007

Alger Hiss accuser named Alger Hiss professor

Filed under: Academia,bard college — louisproyect @ 5:22 pm

I check in on the archives of the H-HOAC (History of American Communism) mailing list once a day. This is a list with scholarly pretensions but mostly reflects the neo-McCarthyite obsessions of two of the men who launched it, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Today Haynes posted a link to an article in the Moonie-backed Washington Times about a book series titled Annals of Communism that was launched by Jonathan Brent, the editorial director of Yale University Press. The series “documents Soviet espionage in the United States, Russian efforts to manipulate the Spanish Civil War and a history of the gulag slave-labor camps.”

Jonathan Brent breaks the news to Dartmouth students that Stalin was evil

Now the enterprising Mr. Brent seems to have lined up a second job as Alger Hiss Visiting Professor at Bard College. This would be the equivalent of appointing Alan Dershowitz to the Edward Said Chair at Columbia University. It also invites comparisons with Ronald Reagan’s infamous appointments of men and women to head various government agencies whose aims they are utterly hostile to. When he was Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, James Watt said: “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.”

In a useful article on the Annals of Communism in the Nation Magazine, Eric Alterman quoted Arthur Schlesinger Jr, a key figure in the Cold War:

The [Annals] editors allowed “unsupported scattershot accusations” to go unchallenged and blacken the names of innocent people and “able public servant[s].”

Alterman also referred to the enthusiasm over the Annals at rightwing newspapers like the aforementioned Washington Times and the equally deranged Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page blared, “Moscow Stooges Unmasked.” They all proclaimed that documents unearthed by the scholarly snitches proved that the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss were guilty as charged. Brent is quoted in a May 12, 1999 Houston Chronicle profile: “It made me feel complicated, and it made me try to understand who Hiss was in a way I had never done before, because I began with the assumption that he was innocent. I began with the assumption that the Rosenbergs were innocent.”

The Alger Hiss Chair at Bard College was previously occupied by Joel Kovel, a choice much more in keeping with the ostensible goals of those who paid good money to establish it. Kovel, a Green Party activist and erstwhile psychiatrist, is the author of “Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism And The Making of America”, a book that described McCarthyism and related phenomena as a kind of low-grade mental illness. That certainly jibes with the portrait of Professor Brent contained in the Houston Chronicle:

Growing up in Chicago, Jonathan Brent rode the public bus to school every day.

During the long ride, he would read the sometimes garish ads that lined the sides of the bus, urging people to stop smoking or to visit local doctors.

It was the height of the Cold War, and one ad would have a lifelong impact.

“There was a picture of (Soviet leader) Nikita Khrushchev pounding the table with his shoe saying, ‘We will bury you,’ ” Brent said. “It was an ad for the United Nations, and it was burned into my psyche, as was Sputnik when it went up and the McCarthy trials. My parents sat me in front of the TV set with them. I didn’t know what was going on, but I overheard their conversation, and it made a big impression.”

When I was that age, I was instead dwelling on the size of classmate Deborah Goldstein’s breasts or how great it would be to own a Chevy convertible. All the while, poor Jonathan Brent was walking around haunted by the image of Sputniks and Khrushchev. Perhaps the Annals of Communism serves a therapeutic value for him, even if its scholarly value–as Eric Alterman points out–is lost on normal human beings.

When Professor Brent’s project was launched in 1996, it had to struggle with a shoestring budget of only $400,000 drawn from donations by the usual gaggle of ultraright foundations, including Olin, Smith Richardson, and Bradley. If such a paltry amount was insufficient to demonstrate to the American people that Communism was evil, there were fortunately other friends of democracy and free enterprise anxious to step into the breach. Among them was George Soros, a major donor to Bard College, who Brent ran into at a forum in Hungary in the mid-80s. They agreed that the world needed to learn that Communism was not a good thing, especially–one assumes–for global investors.

It might initially strike one as odd that Soros would back such a red-baiting project, no matter its scholarly trappings, now that he has become a major villain on David Horowitz’s Frontpage and other outlets on the cesspool right. Soros is a major donor to Campaign for America’s Future, whose co-chair is one Robert Borosage, described by Horowitz as formerly the head of the “Institute for Policy Studies, a far left Washington think tank that has enjoyed close and unsavory involvements with Soviet and Cuban intelligence operations.”

So, how long will it take for the Annals of Communism to unearth Soros’s connections to Cuban intelligence operations, with Robert Borosage acting as a go-between?

Robert Borosage: George Soros operative and Cuban spy?

If all this sounds confusing, it might help to think of this in terms of hedging one’s bets. As a master arbitrageur (a investor who bets on currencies and other financial instruments in one market versus another), Soros is reducing his risks by supporting the right and the left simultaneously. He doles out buckets of money to Brent so that he can come up with dirt on American radicals, while at the same time funding some of these very radicals. In the long run, both he and Brent will end up on the losing side because the forces of history are against them. If official Communism failed, something more authentic will take its place since these words are as true as ever:

The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

–Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto

January 21, 2007

May 6th (06/05)

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 10:28 pm

More interesting as historical document than film, Theo Van Gogh’s “May 6th” (06/05) is now available on home video. The title is a reference to the 2002 date when rightwing Dutch parliamentarian Pim Fortuyns was assassinated by an animal rights activist who had claimed he was acting on behalf of Dutch immigrants. Van Gogh, a Fortuyns supporter, was himself assassinated by an Islamic radical on November 2, 2004. So death and extremist politics cast a pall over this entire project.

Theo Van Gogh

The DVD contains a 55 minute documentary titled “Have a Good Weekend, in Spite of Everything” that accuses the Dutch cops of failing to protect Van Gogh from Mohammed Bouyeri, who appears to have been a informer. Ironically, “May 6th” raises charges of complicity but based on fiction rather than fact. The screenplay, written by Tomas Ross, portrays the assassination as a conspiracy woven by American war manufacturers and their Dutch compatriots to eliminate Fortuyn, who was supposedly opposed to a deal to replace the aging F-16 fighter plane. One might say that the movie is “inspired” by the murder of Pim Fortuyns in the same way that the silly horror movie “Primeval” was “inspired” by a man-eating crocodile in Burundi several years ago. It gave the film-makers a convenient peg to hang a far-fetched yarn.

Curiously enough, Van Gogh was not that interested in disseminating propaganda in this film. In a video diary that is also contained on the DVD, he claims that he only sought to tell a story about the effect of Fortuyn’s killing on his characters. They include a professional photographer who happens on the scene of the execution when he taking cheesecake photos of a soap opera star and a young Turkish woman who was an informant like Mohammed Bouyeri. In exchange for early release from prison for her role in an animal rights killing, she agrees to snitch on the left. When she learns that the cops were involved in Fortuyns’s murder, she hooks up with the photographer who also suspects the cops. In becoming an amateur detective, he follows a long tradition in film going back to early Hitchcock. Although the story of an ordinary citizen stumbling across an evil conspiracy is as dated as a cowboy riding off into the sunset, one can certainly credit Van Gogh for presenting a creditable B-movie version of this cliché.

In some ways, Van Gogh comes across as a typical entertainment industry figure fixated on sex, drugs and his career. Throughout the video diary, he keeps gloating over the fact that Tiscali has fronted him 2 million euros to make “May 6th.”

According to a useful wiki article on Van Goth, he began a second career in the 1980s as a kind of “shock jock”, but used a newspaper column rather than the radio to get attention. After he questioned what he saw as the Jewish preoccupation with Auschwitz, Jewish leaders began to attack him. This kind of attention only made him more provocative. In a 1991 interview, he blamed the “smell of caramel” in the air on the fact that “today they’re only burning diabetic Jews.” When Jewish historian Evelien Gans took him to task, he wrote: “I suspect that Ms. Gans gets wet dreams about being fucked by Dr Mengele.”

In the late 1990s, he evidently got bored with the Jews and turned his attention to the Muslims who he kept referring to as geitenneukers (goat-fuckers). It should come as no surprise that he also said that if he’d been younger, he would have emigrated to the U.S.A., which he considered to be a beacon of light in a darkening world.

After Fortuyns was killed, Van Gogh found a new parliamentarian to pin his hopes on. That was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian refugee who launched a political career founded on bashing Islam, a sure-fire way to get ahead nowadays. She wrote the script for “Submission,” a short film directed by Theo van Gogh which criticized the treatment of women in Islamic society. There is footage of this film in the Van Gogh documentary on the DVD that shows a woman dressed in a semi-transparent burqa that reveals her breasts with text from the Qur’an projected on her skin like tattoos. The words supposedly refer to the subordinate role of women in Islam.

Theo Van Gogh is the great grandson of the art dealer Theo Van Gogh, who dedicated himself to promoting the work of his brother Vincent. I would say that the evidence of the latter-day Van Gogh’s film and journalism is just one more confirmation of the decline of Western Civilization.

Perhaps the most interesting political aspect of the films under consideration and Van Gogh’s broader career is how it represents a variant on American rightwing politics. The Netherlands in some ways is a nation dedicated to the ethos of a place like Berkeley, California. Freedom becomes associated with a mixture of libertarian and counter-cultural themes, including the right to get stoned and to fuck everything you can get your hands on. Van Gogh was notorious for his open cocaine use and for his “advanced” views about sexual relationships. Of course, his sexual attitudes were probably no more advanced than those found in Playboy Magazine, based on this September 8, 1995 NY Times review of an earlier flick:

There is much potential for playfulness and sly characterization, here, but “1-900” doesn’t capitalize on it. Watching the film is like eavesdropping on a couple’s uninventive, soft-core sex talk. Mr. van Gogh offers discreet but unmistakable images to accompany these blunt conversations, as Sarah and Thomas masturbate while on the phone. In the same way that the characters share sex without ever meeting, Mr. van Gogh attempts a visual equivalent by showing that sex without nudity. In a typical encounter, Thomas talks about his philosophy of community housing; Sarah pretends to listen while stroking her leg with a peacock feather.

The death of Fortuyns and then Van Gogh has helped to accelerate the rightward drift in Europe as “enlightened” countries with a social democratic tradition take up the cause of people such as these or Danish cartoonists to be “outrageous”. Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders advocated a five-year ban on non-Western immigration stating: “The Netherlands has been too tolerant to intolerant people for too long. We should not import a retarded political Islamic society to our country”. Meanwhile, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had worked closely with Wilders, has been forced to look elsewhere to advance her political career after it was discovered that she lied on her immigration application to the Netherlands, including a false allegation that she was fleeing a force marriage.

She moved to the USA in September 2006 to take a job with the American Enterprise Institute, where standards of truth and falsehood are laxer.

January 17, 2007

The Sorrow and the Pity

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Not soon after the war in Iraq began, I decided to watch “The Battle of Algiers” again to put things into historical perspective. It seems that the military brass also decided to watch it in order to get some tips on how to put down an insurgency, including how to apply the art of torture that the French excelled in. Lately the American president has been reading the new paperback edition of Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962”, with an eye toward the same goal.

I wonder how many of them have also seen Marcel Ophuls’s “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a 1969 documentary on the Nazi occupation of France. I can strongly recommend this epic film to those who want to better understand the effects of an occupation but unlike Portecorvo’s masterpiece, it is decidedly pessimistic about resistance.

Although I was very familiar with Ophuls’s film by reputation, this week was the first time I actually saw it from beginning to end. Since it is 251 minutes long, it is practically necessary to watch it in chunks, especially given the intensity of the material. Some of you might be aware that Woody Allen decides to take Diane Keaton to “The Sorrow and the Pity” in “Annie Hall”, a sure sign that he is no phony. Of course, the film can be recommended despite this unfortunate association.

As should be obvious from the title of the film, Ophuls is not really about celebrating the heroism and the dedication of the Resistance. The words come from a middle-class pharmacist who tells the interviewers that “What I felt in those years was a sense of sorrow and pity”. Most of the residents of Clermont-Ferrand, a provincial city with a population of about 100,000 that the film focuses on, probably shared that view. They basically hated the occupation but had little desire to fight it. French pop singer idol Maurice Chevalier, expressed similar sentiments to an audience of French prisoners of war in 1942. Speaking for all Frenchman, he said that they only desired: “qu’on leur foute une bonne fois la paix, – to be fucking left in peace”.

Ophuls allows the French collaborators to hoist themselves on their own petards, including René de Chambrun, the aristocratic son-in-law of Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval, who ran the pro-Nazi government alongside WWI hero Marshal Petain. After de Chambrun assures the interviewers that no more than 5 percent of the French Jews were exterminated, they point out to him that this was not the case with those Jews who were not citizens and who were seeking refuge there. 95 percent of them died in concentration camps. But most of the rebuttal comes from Claude Lévy, a French-Jewish scientist who joined the Resistance as a teenager. He describes the Velodrome d’Hiver events of mid-July 1942, when French cops rounded up nearly 13,000 Parisian Jews, 4,051 children of them children. They were soon trucked off to Auschwitz. During the occupation, some 75,000 Jews were executed.

One of the most chilling rightwing figures interviewed in the film is Christian de la Mazière, another aristocrat like de Chambrun. He explains to the interviewers that France was so polarized between the left and the right by 1934 that anti-Bolsheviks had only one option and that was to ally with the Nazis. This was not even a “lesser evil” for de la Mazière, who describes himself as infatuated with the Nazi mystique, so much so that he joined the Waffen SS and volunteered to fight on the Russian front. Although de la Mazière offers a perfunctory disavowal of his fascist past, one gets the sense that he would have marched under the fascist banner once again if France was as polarized as it was in the 1930s.

The Communist left does not really get much of a hearing in the film, although the non-Communist Resistance fighters who are interviewed come across as real heroes. Louis and Alexis Grave are a couple of rough-hewn peasants who decide to form a detachment to fight the Germans. At their first meeting, they sing the Internationale despite the fact that are not Communists. They will not sing “La Marseilles” because it had become so discredited through its association with Vichy. Eventually a Clermont resident informed on Louis Grave and he was sent to Buchenwald. Even though he learned the identity of the informer, he decided not to take revenge. It was not in his temperament.

By contrast, Ophuls depicts the CP as being on a vendetta. After Vichy is overthrown, a CP leader is seen haranguing an audience with the need to see reactionary blood flowing in the street. The CP was of course very adept at punishing collaborators, including the women who slept with Nazi soldiers. Their heads are shaved and swastikas are painted on their face. Unfortunately, the CP was not very adept at resisting the consolidation of capitalism in France in the immediate post-WWII period, a system that would breed the contradictions that make neo-fascism a real threat in that country once again.

The most appealing of all the Resistance figures is Denis Rake, a gay British transvestite night club performer who sends messages to London over shortwave radio from his apartment in Clermont. Rake explains that as a particular kind of gay man, he never felt up to the kind of physical prowess that hand-to-hand combat required. However, his work for the underground entailed even greater risks. Rake is quite clear about who he could have relied upon for support. He says, “I was given no assistance by the French bourgeoisie but workers gave us everything we needed. Food, cigarettes and even the shirts off their backs if we’d asked.”

Marcel Ophuls was born in 1927. He is the son of Max Ophuls, the great German-Jewish director whose masterpiece is undoubtedly “Lola Montès”. The Ophuls fled Germany in 1933 and once again fled from Paris just before the Nazis arrived. According to a May 24, 2004 Guardian profile on Marcel Ophuls (he is still alive), Michael Moore regards himself as a disciple of Marcel Ophuls. Ophuls returned the compliment and said that Moore was “wonderful when he buttonholes the bad guys like Charlton Heston. So pushy! It’s hard to believe he’s not a Jew!” One can certainly see the similarity between the two directors. They are both very skilled at getting evil people to unwittingly indict themselves on camera. Despite their achievements, one might quibble about their ability to get to the roots of a system that can generate such evil, but that fault is all too common with artists, I’m afraid.

“The Sorrow and the Pity” is available from Netflix and all the other usual outlets.

January 16, 2007

Bush and the war in Algeria

Filed under: Africa,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Bush’s latest reading material

Out of morbid curiosity, I watched Scott Pelley’s interview with George W. Bush last Sunday night on “Sixty Minutes”. It included the following:

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Mr. Bush, realizing he’d never had a TV camera on-board, urged us to catch the Washington Monument going by. He’d been reading a book on the history of the city and pointed out landmarks along Pennsylvania Avenue. He told us he’s reading another book, a historical parallel to Iraq about France’s long, losing fight against insurgents in Algeria. Henry Kissinger had recommended it. Within minutes, we had reached Andrews Air Force Base and Air Force One.

I strongly suspected when hearing this that the book in question is Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace” that I cite in my “Battle of Algiers” review on MRZine. I subsequently learned from Eli Stephens that CNN is reporting that Bush is indeed reading Horne’s book for lessons on what to do in Iraq.

My review of “The Battle of Algiers” began with a similar use of the “lessons” of Algeria:

Challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of “The Battle of Algiers,” the film that in the late 1960’s was required viewing and something of a teaching tool for radicalized Americans and revolutionary wannabes opposing the Vietnam War.

Back in those days the young audiences that often sat through several showings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 re-enactment of the urban struggle between French troops and Algerian nationalists, shared the director’s sympathies for the guerrillas of the F.L.N., Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Those viewers identified with and even cheered for Ali La Pointe, the streetwise operator who drew on his underworld connections to organize a network of terrorist cells and entrenched it within the Casbah, the city’s old Muslim section. In the same way they would hiss Colonel Mathieu, the character based on Jacques Massu, the actual commander of the French forces.

The Pentagon’s showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film — the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.

Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?” (The New York Times, September 7, 2003)

Horne’s book is a devastating indictment of colonialism. It has now been reissued as a paperback and I strongly recommend it. Here’s a review by Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post author of “Fiasco”, a celebrated attack on the war in Iraq.

The Washington Post November 19, 2006 Sunday Aftershocks; A classic on France’s losing fight against Arab rebels contains troubling echoes of Iraq today.

Reviewed by Thomas E. Ricks

A SAVAGE WAR OF PEACE Algeria 1954-1962
By Alistair Horne
New York Review Books. 608 pp. Paperback, $19.95

When Americans talk about the raging insurgency in Iraq, they often draw parallels with the Vietnam War, but a better analogy is probably the French war against nationalist rebels in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. That’s one reason why the landmark history of that conflict, Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, has been an underground bestseller among U.S. military officers over the last three years, with used copies selling on Amazon.com for $150. Indeed, “Algeria” has become almost a codeword among U.S. counterinsurgency specialists — a shorthand for the depth and complexity of the mess we face in Iraq. Earlier this year, I referred to Horne’s book while conversing with one such expert in Taji, Iraq, and got a grim nod of agreement.

Now a new paperback edition of Horne’s 1977 classic has been issued, cutting the price of wisdom to a more reasonable $19.95. In a new preface, Horne makes the connection to Iraq explicit. First, he notes, the Algerian insurgents fighting to end France’s colonial control over the country avoided taking on the French army directly; instead, they attacked the police and other more vulnerable targets, thereby demoralizing local supporters of the French presence. Second, Algeria’s porous borders greatly aided the insurgents, who could receive reinforcements, arms and sanctuary from neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Morocco. Third, and most emphatically, he writes that “torture should never, never, never be resorted to by any Western society.”

Those three parallels are provocative enough, as far as they go. But many other, perhaps less obvious points in Horne’s lucid, well-organized history may do even more to deepen our understanding of the Iraq War.

Again and again, Horne wrote passages about the French in Algeria that could describe the U.S. military in Iraq. As I wrote about the U.S. Army’s big “cordon-and-sweep” operations that detained tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi males in the Sunni Triangle in the fall of 2003, I remembered Horne: “This is the way an administration caught with its pants down reacts under such circumstances. . . . First comes the mass indiscriminate round-up of suspects, most of them innocent but converted into ardent militants by the fact of their imprisonment.”

Like the Americans in Iraq, the French in Algeria consistently misunderstood the nature of the opposition, focusing too much on supposed foreign support and too little on the local roots of the insurgency. Horne also detected a distinctly familiar pattern of official optimism among French officials, who were quick to declare their war “virtually over” four years before it ended in their defeat.

Moreover, A Savage War of Peace draws an important distinction between torture by the police and torture by the military. The former damages mainly individuals and need not be hugely damaging to the war effort; the latter, Horne quotes a former French officer as saying, involves the honor of the nation — as it did at Abu Ghraib and other facilities where Iraqis were abused by American soldiers in 2003-04.

Along the way, Horne offers three other comments that are not particularly encouraging. First, when considering the Bush administration’s policy of having U.S. forces stand down as newly trained Iraqi forces stand up, it is worth noting that throughout the eight years of the Algerian war, more Algerians were fighting on the French side than on the rebel side — and the French still lost.

Second, when trying to understand Iraq’s current violence, it is good to recall Horne’s comment that “such a simultaneous internal ‘civil war’ ” often rages alongside a “revolutionary struggle against an external enemy.”

Finally, when we hear U.S. military officers arguing that they achieved their mission in Iraq but that the rest of the U.S. government failed or the will of the American people faltered, remember Horne’s quotation from a French general, Jacques de Bollardière, who was critical of his army’s performance: “Instead of coldly analysing with courageous lucidity its tactical and strategic errors, it gave itself up to a too human inclination and tried — not without reason, however — to excuse its mistakes by the faults of civil authority and public opinion.”


To be sure, there are huge differences between the two wars. Most notably, the United States isn’t a colonial power in Iraq, seeking to maintain a presence of troops and settlers as long as possible. Rather, in Iraq, victory would consist of getting U.S. personnel out while leaving behind a relatively friendly, open, stable and independent government. And while elements of the French military tried to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle for pulling out from what he termed “a bottomless quagmire,” there is little fear that U.S. officers will go down that rebellious road.

But there are numerous suggestive parallels — mainly relating to conventional Western militaries fighting primarily urban insurgencies in Arab cultures while support for their wars dwindles back home and while the insurgents hope to outlast their better-armed opponents. As such, anyone interested in Iraq should read this book immediately.

Thomas E. Ricks, a Washington Post military correspondent who has reported frequently from Iraq, is the author of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.”


The New York Times, January 17, 2007 Wednesday
Aux Barricades!
By Maureen Dowd

Being president can be really, really hard.

”Sometimes you’re the commander in chief,” W. explained to Scott Pelley on ”60 Minutes.” ”Sometimes you’re the educator in chief, and a lot of times you’re both when it comes to war.”

President Bush has been dutifully making the rounds of TV news shows, trying to make the case that victory in Iraq is ”doable.” He thinks the public will support the Surge if he can simply illuminate a few things that we may have been too thick to understand. For instance, he says he needs to ”explain to people that what happens in the Middle East will affect the future of this country.” Yes, Mr. President, we get it.

He also told Jim Lehrer last night that in 20 years, radical Shiites could be warring with radical Sunnis and Middle Eastern oil could fall into the hands of radicals, who might also get weapons of mass destruction.

So after scaring Americans into backing the Sack of Iraq by warning that radicals could get W.M.D., now he’s trying to scare Americans into supporting the Surge in Iraq by warning that radicals could get W.M.D.

So many deaths, so little progress.

It’s unnerving to be tutored by an educator in chief who is himself being tutored. The president elucidating the Iraqi insurgency for us is learning about the Algerian insurgency from the man who failed to quell the Vietcong insurgency.

During his ”60 Minutes” interview, Mr. Bush mentioned that he was reading Alistair Horne’s classic history, ”A Savage War of Peace,” about why the French suffered a colonial disaster in a guerrilla war against Muslims in Algiers from 1954 to 1962.

The book was recommended to W. by Henry Kissinger, who is working on an official biography of himself with Mr. Horne.

Mr. Horne recalled that Dr. Kissinger told him: ”The president’s one of my best students. He reads all the books I send him.” The author asked the president’s foreign affairs adviser if W. ever wrote any essays on the books. ”Henry just laughed,” Mr. Horne said.

It seems far too late for Mr. Bush to begin studying about counterinsurgency now that Iraq has cratered into civil war. Can’t someone get the president a copy of ”Gone With the Wind”?

Maybe it was inevitable, once W. started reading Camus’s ”L’Etranger,” set in Algeria, that he would move on to Mr. Horne. As The Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks wrote in November, the Horne book has been an underground best-seller among U.S. military officers for three years, and ”Algeria” has become almost a code word among counterinsurgency specialists for the mess in Iraq. The Pentagon screened the 1966 movie ”The Battle of Algiers” in 2003, but the commander in chief must have missed it.

I asked Mr. Horne, who was at his home in a small village outside Oxford, England, what the president could learn from his book.

”The depressing problem of getting entangled in the Muslim world,” he replied. ”Algeria was a thoroughly bloodthirsty war that ended horribly and cost the lives of about 20,000 Frenchmen and a million Algerians. There was a terrible civil war. De Gaulle ended up giving literally everything away and left without his pants.”

President de Gaulle had all the same misconceptions as W., that his prestige could persuade the Muslims to accept his terms; that the guerrillas would recognize military defeat and accept sensible compromise; and that, as Mr. Horne writes, ”time would wait while he found the correct formula and then imposed peace with it.”

Mr. Horne also sees sad parallels in the torture issue: ”The French had experience under the Nazis in the occupation and practiced methods the Germans used in Algeria and extracted information that helped them win the Battle of Algiers. But in the long run it lost the war, because it caused such revulsion in France when the news came out, and there was huge opposition to the war from Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.”

In May 2005, Mr. Horne gave a copy of his book to Rummy, with passages about torture underlined. ”I got a savage letter back from him,” the author said.

The best thing now, he said, is to try to ”get around the mullahs” and ”get non-Christian forces in there as quickly as possible, mercenaries. As Henry said the other day, if only we had two brigades of Gurkhas to send to Baghdad.”

Meanwhile, maybe W. should move on to reading Sartre. ”No Exit,” perhaps.


Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 24

Facing the Question

By Scott McLemee

“Sixty Minutes” reported a couple of weeks ago that George W. Bush is now, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, reading a book about the Algerian War.

My new year’s resolutions preclude taking any of the various cheap shots made conveniently easy by this bit of news. No, mustn’t. Instead, it’s worth dwelling on an interesting fact there, between the lines. Even someone with a pretty slight knowledge of the literature on the Algerian conflict (okay, I confess it) will immediately know which book Kissinger recommended to the president. It’s obvious.First published 30 years ago, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne, very quickly established itself as the standard account of that period available in any language.

Read full article here.

January 15, 2007

Socialism and Islam

Filed under: Islam,socialism — louisproyect @ 11:03 pm

Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, told the British that “the influence of his family and himself would be devoted to maintaining tranquility.”

(This is the last installment on socialism and religion in a continuing series on “Does Socialism Have a Future”. My next post will be a commentary on state capitalism.)

Given the new Crusade mounted by Anglo-American imperialism since 9/11, it is completely understandable that some radicals would identify with those under attack in the same way that the war in Vietnam led young radicals to break with their class and explore socialism in the 1960s. If we are in the throes of a new kind of Cold War, perhaps it makes sense to align oneself with Washington’s new enemies. If one can reach the conclusion that the Kremlin stood for historical progress, despite its hidebound bureaucratic top layers, why not see political Islam in the same fashion? If secular and socialist forces are exhausted, why not form alliances with a powerful global movement that seems to have inexhaustible reservoirs of anti-imperialist fervor?

This tendency will no doubt be accelerated by the growing ties between the Latin American left and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a January 14th NY Times article, we learn that Chavez greeted a visiting Ahmadinejad with “Welcome, fighter for just causes” and described him as a “revolutionary” to the National Assembly. Meanwhile, in a December 9th article titled “Anti-Americans on the March,” the Wall Street Journal reported:

Some of Hezbollah’s biggest fans are in Europe. There, the hard left, demoralized by the collapse of communism, has found new energy, siding with Islamist militants in Lebanon, in Iraq and in a wider campaign against what they see as an American plot to impose unrestrained free-market capitalism.

“We are all Hezbollah now,” read posters carried through London this summer during an antiwar protest march. Earlier, London Mayor Ken Livingston, once known as “Red Ken,” invited a controversial Egyptian cleric to the British capital, arguing that his views have been distorted by the West.

Within the “hard left”, as the WSJ puts it, there is little doubt that the British Socialist Workers Party has gone further than any other group in trying to reconcile Marxism and political Islam, so much so that French Trotskyist intellectual Gilbert Achcar has begun to attack the SWP for departing from Marxist norms as he sees them. In a 2004 article titled “Marxists and Religion – yesterday and today” that criticizes the SWP alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), Achcar concludes:

The radical left, on one or another side of the Channel, should return to an attitude consistent with Marxism, which it proclaims. Otherwise, the hold of the fundamentalists over the Muslim populations risks reaching a level which will be extremely difficult to overcome. The gulf between these populations and the rest of the men and women workers in Europe will find itself widened, while the task of bridging it is one of the essential conditions for replacing the clash of barbarisms with a common fight of the workers and the oppressed against capitalism.

For its part, the SWP has been quite diligent in trying to establish that such alliances are actually “consistent with Marxism.” In “The Bolsheviks and Islam,” an article written by Dave Crouch in the Spring 2006 International Socialism Journal, we learn:

sharia law had been a central demand of Muslims during the February Revolution of 1917 and, as the civil war drew to a close in 1920-1921, a parallel court system was created in Central Asia and the Caucasus, with Islamic courts administering justice in accordance with sharia law side by side with Soviet legal institutions. The aim was for people to have a choice between religious and revolutionary justice. A sharia Commission was established in the Soviet Commissariat of Justice to oversee the system. In 1921 a series of commissions were attached to regional units of the Soviet administration with the purpose of adapting the Russian legal code to the conditions of Central Asia, allowing for compromise between the two systems on questions such as under-age marriage and polygamy.

Although Crouch alludes to the Bolshevik goal of seeking “to split the Islamic movement between right and left”, there is very little historical context in the article. For that you have to consult other sources, such as volume one of E.H. Carr’s “The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923”. There we learn that Bolshevik policy reflected trial-and-error more than Marxist doctrine. When an “enforced sovietization of the eastern border-lands based on the hypothetical support of native revolutionary masses hostile to both bourgeois nationalism and Islam, proved a fiasco,” the Bolsheviks moved toward the policy described by Crouch.

While one can certainly learn from the experience of the early Soviet Union on matters such as these, it is not quite clear what practical political lessons can be drawn. Should socialists back demands for sharia law arising within Muslim communities? These are questions that cannot be simply resolved by stating that if it was good enough for the Bolsheviks, it is good enough for us. I can see the merits of supporting a demand for sharia that arose in Ontario last year. In a debate on this question that arose on Marxmail, Richard Fidler, a long-time socialist, wrote:

The anti-sharia campaign cannot be viewed in isolation from the overall political context since 9/11, in which Muslims have been singled out repeatedly as the enemies of “civilization” as we know it, in a sustained media attempt to justify the racist war drive. That’s why I maintain that the campaign was “racist”.

Meanwhile, the proposed Iraqi constitution calls for sharia law. Should we back this constitution because the Bolsheviks backed sharia law in the 1920s, or because it makes sense to back such demands in Ontario? Unfortunately, much of the discussion around Marxism and religion loses sight of the all-important criterion in such cases, namely the need to place them in the context of the class struggle. Strategy and tactics go by the board, while the relationship between socialism and religion gets turned into a principle.

Sometimes I wonder whether this new found enthusiasm for religion is a function of the exhaustion of socialist forces in the Middle East and elsewhere. As the WSJ article puts it, a “hard left” demoralized by the collapse of the Soviet Union might feel compelled to look for energy wherever it can be found. Looking back in our history, I would be hesitant to put that much confidence in any religion, particularly Islam.

In Rashid Khalidi’s recently published “The Iron Cage,” there is very little confidence placed in Islam. While most people regard the PLO as a symbol of secular ineptitude that had to give way to a less corrupt and more militant Hamas, there is evidence that the greatest betrayal of Palestinian aspirations ever took place at the hands of a religious leadership in the 1930s that incorporated exactly the same mix of faith-based radicalism and paternalistic welfare that typifies political Islam throughout the Arab East and Iran today.

In chapter two, there’s a section titled “The Communitarian Paradigm: Invented Religious Institutions” that details how the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem rose to power. Basically, the British Empire adapted traditional religious institutions that existed under Ottoman rule for their own purposes:

In Palestine, where the British had taken on the daunting responsibility of creating a Jewish national home in an Arab land with a 90 percent Arab majority, they faced an especially difficult task. In keeping with their hierarchical view of all societies, particularly subordinate ones, the British saw that one essential precondition for achieving this task was preventing the resistance to the Zionist project by a critical mass of the Palestinian elites, the notables who dominated Arab society and had previously served as intermediaries between that society and the Ottomans. While refusing the notables any official standing, and frustrating their national aspirations along with those of the rest of the Palestinians, the British nevertheless treated them with a certain ostensible deference, and were careful to allow them a limited role as intermediaries for the rest of Palestinian society, as well as certain other prerequisites. This was in line with the well-established British predilection, already mentioned (and seen most spectacularly in India, but also elsewhere in the British Empire), for developing privileged relations with real or invented aristocratic elites, rather than political formations rooted in the middle classes or the mass of the people. Among the most successful means for achieving this end in Palestine was the establishment and empowering by Britain of refashioned, as well as entirely new, Islamic institutions dominated by some of these traditional notables: institutions like the shari’a court system, the network of public charitable foundations, and the administration of Muslim holy places in Palestine.

You will note that the British helped to facilitate a sharia court system and a network of public charitable foundations. These are obviously the two constants of political Islam. Meanwhile, the Islamic institutions that were based on them condemned the Palestinian people to defeat. When they rose up against the British from 1936 to 1939, they were hobbled by an Islamic leadership that had spent most of the past 25 years temporizing with the British and being bribed by the Zionists.

Sir Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner, who appointed Hajj Amin al-Husanyi to the post of Grand Mufti, was a Jew and a Zionist. Khalidi states that al-Husanyi assured Samuel of his “earnest desire to cooperate with the Government and his belief in the good intentions of the British Government toward the Arabs,” as well as that “the influence of his family and himself would be devoted to maintaining tranquility.”

The Americans, like the British who preceded them, have always sought to curry favor with local religious elites. This was exactly the ploy that was attempted in Iraq, when Shi’ites were promised that they could become dominant, even if it was at the expense of their national sovereignty. A sectarian war ensued with Sunnis arrayed against Shi’ites. Mosques are blown up on both sides and ethnic cleansing proceeds relentlessly just as it did in India after independence or many other regions that were once part of the British Empire.

In the early 1980s, I developed a critique of Marxism-Leninism based on Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” and my own subsequent reading of Lenin. Basically my ideas on this were an elaboration on Fidel Castro’s observation that “The international communist movement, to our way of thinking, is not a church.” In my political activity and in my writings, I have tried to follow through on Castro’s words. Despite the fact that Marxism has suffered schisms for most of the past 150 years, it at least offers the possibility that it can unite disparate ethnic and religious forces in struggle just as was the case in Russia in 1917. While it is obviously counter-productive for our movement to conduct open ideological warfare against religion, it might be high time that we remind ourselves of our purpose on earth. That is to unite working people across religious, ethnic and national lines against the most powerful ruling class in history that has always understood the need to defend its own class interests across the same exact lines. If we lose sight of the primary class divide, then all else is lost.

January 14, 2007

Letter to a Washington Post editor

Filed under: Iraq,media — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Robert G. Kaiser

Dear Robert G. Kaiser,

First of all, I want to commend you for comparing the situation in Iraq to the Vietnam War in today’s Washington Post article (“Trapped by Hubris Again”). Despite your failure to connect the dotted lines and call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, it a step toward seeing this “war on terror” for what it truly is: outrageous imperialist meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation.

While some Washington Post reporters, especially Bob Woodward in his initially hagiographic look at the Bush ’43 presidency, have helped to create the mess that the U.S. is in today, it has also been a voice of sanity. As you will soon see, however, I am afraid that the criticism of the war has too often been motivated by pragmatism rather than principles–including your own piece.

Your line of criticism reminds me of an incident reported in the Daily News on September 9th last year.

A PISTOL-PACKING Harlem granny turned the tables on a robber yesterday, busting out her registered .357 magnum and shooting the mugger in the elbow – while riding in her motorized scooter, cops said.

Feisty Margaret Johnson, 57, who has a dislocated hip and and a herniated disk, was heading out for target practice about 3 p.m. when a career criminal came up behind her and went for her necklaces, sources said.

“There’s not much to it,” she said later. “Somebody tried to mug me, and I shot him.”

Isn’t that exactly what we see today? The U.S. thought it was mugging a defenseless grandmother but she was actually carrying a .357 magnum. I think the lesson to be drawn is not that we should first check whether an elderly woman is packing iron, but that we should not mug people–or countries–to begin with. In your article, you write:

What’s the lesson to be learned? Modesty. Before initiating a war of choice — and Vietnam and Iraq both qualify — define the goal with honesty and precision, then analyze what means will be needed to achieve it. Be certain you really understand the society you propose to transform. And never gamble that the political solution to such an adventure will somehow materialize after the military operation has begun. Without a plausible political plan and strong local support at the outset, military operations alone are unlikely to produce success.

If this is the litmus test that the U.S. should apply before invading and occupying a foreign country, it would seem that the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, Panama, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic would all fail that test since the goal was successfully defined and achieved. Of course, some of us who have quaint ideas about right and wrong and international law might quibble over the right of the U.S. Marines to invade and occupy such countries, an act that Marine General Smedley Butler once described as a “racket”.

Leaving aside arcane questions of right and wrong, there are a few other items in your article that I would like to bring to your attention. While I understand that you might not enjoy having your feathers ruffled, the listing of your email address at the bottom of your article invites a response even if it comes from the farthest reaches of the American left.

To begin with, I think your grasp of both Vietnamese and Iraqi history is a bit flawed. You state:

Indeed, Hadley’s memo is squarely in the tradition of the sublimely arrogant know-it-alls whom journalist David Halberstam memorably dubbed “The Best and the Brightest.” These were the men around John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson who, along with Kennedy and Johnson, gave us the Vietnam War: Robert S. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Walt W. Rostow and the rest. They, too, allowed themselves to believe that the shrewd application of U.S. power — pulling a lever here, pushing a button there — could create and prop up an independent, democratic South Vietnam. This was something that had never existed previously — in that sense, something sadly akin to a multiethnic, democratic Iraq.

You seem to have forgotten that the U.S. was opposed to an independent and democratic Vietnam from the very start. Don’t you recall that General Eisenhower stated in ‘Mandate for Change, 1953-1956’ that “It was generally conceded that had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier.” Now I understand that for the U.S. the results of such elections would be unacceptable, but the rest of the world is not blinded by anti-Communism. In another demonstration of how unimportant democracy is to the U.S., we should look at what Kissinger said after the people of Chile voted for Allende: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” Given such evidence, one can only conclude that the “shrewd application of U.S. power” generally has more to do with preventing democracy than facilitating it.

While Iraq might look like virgin territory when it comes to the matter of democracy, a deeper search will reveal that the country had made great strides in that direction after the monarchy was overthrown in 1958 by a group of forward-thinking military officers led by Abd al-Karim Qasim. On July 26, 1958, Iraq adopted a Constitution that proclaimed the equality of all Iraqi citizens under the law and granted them freedom without regard to race, nationality, language or religion. The government freed political prisoners and granted amnesty to Kurds who had participated in the 1943 to 1945 Kurdish uprisings. The exiled Kurds returned home and were welcomed by the republican regime.

Given all the rhetoric from the neo-Conservative supporters of the U.S. invasion who never saw a Kurd that they didn’t like, one might think that our country would have rallied around Qasim back then. Unfortunately, Qasim made the fatal mistake of withdrawing from the pro-Western Baghdad Pact and establishing friendly relations with the Soviet Union. While the U.S. is all for “democratic” and “independent” nations, they must not make the fatal mistake of choosing democratically to align with the Soviet Union. That, as Kissinger put it, would be most “irresponsible.”

Qasim was eventually overthrown by forces that the U.S. found more congenial to its tastes, including a young officer named Saddam Hussein. The coup resulted in 10,000 deaths and more than 100,000 arrests. If you consult Hanna Batatu’s “The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq”, you will discover–to your shock, I imagine–that the CIA furnished Saddam Hussein’s goons with their hit-lists. Batatu quotes Jordan’s King Hussein on the matter:

You tell me that American Intelligence was behind the 1957 events in Jordan. Permit me to tell you that I know for a certainty that what happened in Iraq on 8 February had the support of American Intelligence. Some of those who now rule in Baghdad do not know of this thing but I am aware of the truth. Numerous meetings were held between the Ba`ath party and American Intelligence, the more important in Kuwait. Do you know that . . . on 8 February a secret radio beamed to Iraq was supplying the men who pulled the coup with the names and addresses of the Communists there so that they could be arrested an executed. [Al-Ahram, 27 September 1963]

To finally turn to your conclusion, I think we find ourselves on common ground:

Bush’s latest initiatives — like all his earlier ones — will not produce the desired political result, because Americans cannot accomplish political objectives in Iraq. Americans are outsiders, occupiers, foreigners in every sense of the word. Only Iraqis have a chance of finding a political resolution for their divisions. So now we await the fate of this latest gamble like a high roller in Las Vegas watching a roulette ball in a spinning wheel. We have about as much control over the situation as the gambler has of that ball. The outcome is out of our hands, and it would be foolish to bet that we will like the way the conflict ends.

I agree. We are outsiders, occupiers and foreigners in every sense of the word. I would only hope that you use your good influence at the Washington Post to publicize the antiwar demonstration in Washington scheduled on the 27th of January. If your paper fulfills its obligation to the American people and informs them of an activity that expresses their will–namely to withdraw from Iraq–then we will be a lot closer to allowing the people of Iraq to express their will as well, a necessary first step in realizing the democracy and independence that all good people should support.

January 12, 2007

An Unreasonable Man

Filed under: Film,third parties — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm

Last night I attended a press screening for “An Unreasonable Man”, a documentary on Ralph Nader that opens in theaters around the country later this month. It is an absolute must for anybody who is trying to understand the ongoing political crisis in the United States, reflected most recently in the Democratic Party’s abject failure to mount an effective challenge to Bush’s escalation in Iraq. It is also a stunning dramatic portrait of why Ralph Nader rose to the challenge of resolving this crisis despite having to face a torrent of abuse and political/economic/legal reprisals.

“An Unreasonable Man” reminded me of an observation I made a month or two ago in an email discussion. In places like Colombia, the left’s biggest obstacle is physical violence organized by the army, police and paramilitaries. In a rich democracy like the United States, the left instead has to endure social pressure and the threat of ostracism. It is to Ralph Nader’s everlasting credit that he has stood up to this kind of bullying as if it were a bullet aimed at his head.

The liberal media’s portrait of Ralph Nader is that of a Jekyll-Hyde. There is a “good” Nader who took on GM, built the consumers’ rights movement, inspired progressive legislation, etc. Then there is the “bad” Nader who somehow out of the blue (bit by a vampire?) decided to help elect George W. Bush. This is explained as a function of his “megalomania” and his inability to see the obvious, namely that the Democrats are better than the Republicans.

In a brilliant stroke, directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan include interviews with Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, two of the more hysterical critics of the Nader campaigns. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the film reminding the audience of Ralph Nader’s perfidy. They only end up indicting themselves through their willful refusal to acknowledge why Gore lost in 2000. Nader’s campaign manager Theresa Amato presents that case most effectively. Her affable demeanor is in stark contrast to the glowering Alterman and Gore, who spit out their words. She points out that Gore could not even win in Arkansas and Tennessee, the home states of the 2-term incumbent Democrat president and vice-president. She also pointed out that the margin of victory in Florida for Bush was less than the vote totals for a slew of 3rd party candidates. Why blame Nader for “stealing” 527 votes from Gore in Florida when even the SWP candidate received more votes than that?

Since Ralph Nader has led a monastic existence for his entire adult life, there is not much in the way of biographical material that would present itself in a project such as this. His career and his life are practically equivalent, just as is the case with somebody like Fidel Castro. The key to understanding Nader’s evolution is his family life in Winstead, Connecticut. In interviews with his sisters Laura and Claire, we learn that their father, a Lebanese-Christian, was so passionate about discussing politics that friends warned him about driving customers from his restaurant. His reaction was to say that they could go. As an immigrant to the United States, he believed in the bill of rights and other democratic guarantees and refused to be blackmailed into silence.

Nader’s mother was just as outspoken. After Winstead’s downtown was heavily damaged by a flood, she made sure to get Senator Prescott Bush (George W.’s grandfather) to promise that he would fund a dam. When he was in Winstead for a typical “meet your senator” visit, she stood patiently on line until her turn. When Bush shook her hand, she made the case for a dam and wouldn’t release his hand until he agreed. With parents such as these, it should not come as any surprise that Nader sticks to his guns.

The film begins with Nader’s famous confrontation with Detroit over safety. We see some amusing old commercials that depict cars as the key to happiness and success with the opposite sex. What they never revealed was how dangerous they were, like unprotected sex with a stranger in some ways. Nader decided to look into auto safety after a classmate and good friend at Harvard was killed in an automobile accident. While Nader was no expert in the matter at that time, he soon became the country’s leading authority and the nemesis of the big three auto-makers.

William Greider and James Ridgeway, two journalists who were instrumental in publicizing his early career, give testimony to his tenacity and his brilliance. Furthermore, both of them–despite their connection to mainstream liberal publications–both understand why Nader decided to risk the enmity of wealthy liberals who were all too happy to back his consumer rights activism but not his electoral bids: he is driven by idealism, not Machiavellian calculation. Ridgeway, who does not mince words, says that people like Alterman and Gitlin are “the meanest bunch of motherfuckers” you’ll ever run into.

In his early career, Nader was no enemy of the Democratic Party. His consumer organizations worked closely with the Democrats and actually stumped to get them elected. His status as an insider was cemented after Jimmy Carter’s election. Carter invited Nader down for some consultations after taking office and it was expected that his administration would defend the rights of the consumer.

As a symbol of that breakthrough, Carter appointed long-time Nader associate Joan Claybrook as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Once again demonstrating that principles were more important than political horse-trading, Nader broke with her when she agreed to an air-bag regulation that he deemed inadequate.

When voters perceived Walter Mondale as a continuation of Carter administration ineptitude, they elected Ronald Reagan. Reagan, and every politician who succeeded him including the “liberal” Bill Clinton, has been hostile to the kind of pro-consumer legislation that Nader fought for. Finally Nader decided that it would require action in the electoral arena in order to counteract a two-party crusade against everything he believed in and fought for. Put succinctly, it was not Nader who changed but the Democratic and Republican Parties. It was these two powerful institutions that were subverting the Jeffersonian dreams of his parents. Nader believed in small-town values, including town meetings and family-owned businesses. If it took a radical challenge against an increasingly monolithic pro-corporate two-party system to turn the country around, he was willing to step forward even if it seemed Quixotic.

When some of his old friends and associates interviewed throughout the film worry about how posterity will view Nader (Jekyll or Hyde), Nader assures his interviewers that there is nothing that his liberal critics can say that will tarnish him. Even though a seat belt in your automobile does not have the legend “Made by Nader” stamped on it, it might as well have.

The title of the film comes from George Bernard Shaw’s “Maxims for Revolutionists”, a section in the 1903 “Man and Superman”:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Long live Ralph Nader and long live being unreasonable!

Film website, with schedule information about openings this month.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.