Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 30, 2009

Naturei Karta

Filed under: zionism — louisproyect @ 11:50 pm

Last night as I walked out on Broadway after a screening of “Gomorrah”, a new movie about the Naples mafia, I heard a commotion a couple of blocks south. When I got there, it was a demonstration against AIPAC that was holding a fund-raising dinner at a hotel on 44th Street. About 200 people were there, including the Naturei Karta–a Hasidic sect opposed to Zionism. Here’s their leader holding forth at a 2008 protest:

Turkish Prime Minister tells it like it is

Filed under: Turkey,zionism — louisproyect @ 2:41 pm

January 29, 2009


Filed under: Film,literature — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

Available on home video on February 10th, “Obscene” helps prove a point that I have made repeatedly, namely that the old left of the 1930s was midwife to both the beat generation and the political radicalization and counter-culture of the 1960s.

Focused on the career of Barney Rosset, who founded Grove Press and published Evergreen Review, this superb documentary reveals how it was completely natural for a member of the Young Communists in 1937 to eventually end up publishing not only “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” and “Tropic of Cancer” in defiance of the Calvinist censorship laws of the 1950s, but to also print the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” in defiance of the racist attitudes that prevailed in American publishing.

When Rosset discovered that Doubleday decided not to publish Malcolm’s autobiography, his Grove Press came to the rescue. This was completely consistent with values that he had embraced since his high school days when he published a student newspaper called “The Sommunist”. The title was a playful riff on the earlier titles, “The Communist” and “The Socialist”.

Serving as an army cameraman during WWII in the hopes of eventually making a career in the movie business, Rosset produced a documentary in 1948 called “Strange Victory”. Using stock footage of Ku Klux Klan lynchings and Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, etc, it challenged racism in the postwar period. Despite his political interests, Rosset was also part of the social milieu of abstract expressionists and bohemian intellectuals who used to hang out at the Cedar Tavern in New York in the 1950s. With connections made through Joan Mitchell, his wife at the time and an artist herself, he socialized with Jackson Pollock who had begun his career as a leftwing WPA artist.

Samuel Beckett (l) and Barney Rosset in Paris in the 1970s

Six years after the launching of Grove Press in 1951, the very first issue of Evergreen Review hit the stands. I first discovered Evergreen Press in final year of high school in 1961 and took out a subscription. In my desperation to find nonconformist culture in those suffocating years, you can imagine my delight in seeing a table of contents that typically included:

Kenneth Rexroth — San Francisco Letter and Noretorp-Noretsyh
Brother Antoninus, O.P. — Four Poems
Robert Duncan — Three Poems
Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Dog and Other Poems
Henry Miller — Big Sur and the Good Life
Michael McClure — The Robe and Other Poems
Jack Spicer — Psychoanalysis and Other Poems
Gary Snyder — The Berry Feast
Philip Whalen — Five Poems
Jack Kerouac — October in the Railroad Earth
Allen Ginsberg — Howl

Not only was I starving for this kind of “outsider” literature, as a hormone-driven 16 year old I wanted to read sexually explicit literature without some censor interfering with that right. In high school, I learned that there was this novel called “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that had some hot sex scenes. The only trouble was that it was banned in the U.S. People who traveled to Europe often smuggled it back into the U.S., like Cuban cigars. I couldn’t wait to get my sweaty 16 year old fingers on it.

Not only did Grove Press win a landmark decision that made reading D.H. Lawrence’s novel possible, it followed up with another legal victory in 1961. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” was finally available through Grove Press as well, a witty and profane alternative to Lawrence’s floridly self-conscious literary style. We see clips of Henry Miller in “Obscene” as well as a number of other Grove Press writers, including Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs and Amiri Baraka.

Many years after first being exposed to Grove Press books, I learned that one of its top editors was none other than Harry Braverman who had worked closely with Bert Cochran on the American Socialist/Socialist Union project of the 1950s, whose legacy I have tried to uphold in various ways. After spending a few years at Grove, Harry went to work at Monthly Review where he wrote “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, a Marxist classic about alienation in the post-Fordist world.

I wonder what Harry thought of an article that appeared in the 1958 American Socialist that appeared so out of whack with the job that would be awaiting him at Grove Press. George Hitchcock’s review of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” damned with faint praise the literature that was shaking young people to their foundations. Hitchcock wrote:

But beneath the cultish nonsense and literary borrowings there is another aspect to ‘On The Road,’ and it is this which gives the book its value. For in his naive outpouring Kerouac gives us at least one authentic picture-the picture of a submerged America, the America of an alienated, protesting generation which wanders from meaningless job to meaningless job in the depths of her psychic forests, a part of America expatriated in its own land. And this tragedy is not merely the personal one of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise-it is the tragedy of our society, glittering on its suburban surfaces and anarchic and despairing in its true heart.

Although Barney Rosset appears to belong to a different epoch, he is still going strong at the age of 87. I strongly recommend a visit to his website where electronic versions of old Evergreen Reviews can be downloaded for only $2.95. Compared to the schlock that can be found in your local newsstand, this is the bargain of the century.

January 28, 2009

John Updike

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

John Updike, one of the U.S.’s most prolific and respected writers, died yesterday of lung cancer at the age of 76. As a novelist, short story writer, poet and critic, Updike was a man of many talents. Despite unevenness in quality, all of his output reflected a formal elegance that can rarely be seen today.

Updike was a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine where an archive of his work going back to 1955 can be read.  A May 26, 2008 short story titled “The Full Glass” is in the voice of an 80 year old man reflecting back on his life. Although the character’s job was refinishing floors, his twilight reflections are drawn from Updike’s own intimations of mortality. The prose has Updike’s characteristically shimmering beauty as well as capturing the character’s personality in a few brush strokes:

Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately. Normally I have no use for introspection. My employment for thirty years, refinishing wood floors-carried on single-handedly out of a small white truck, a Chevrolet Spartan, with the several sizes of electric sanders and the belts and disks of sandpaper in all their graded degrees of coarseness and five-gallon containers of polyurethane and thinner and brushes ranging from a stout six-inch width to a diagonally cut two-inch sash brush for tight corners and jigsaw-fitted thresholds-has conditioned me against digging too deep. Balancing in a crouch on the last dry boards like a Mohawk steel walker has taught me the value of the superficial, of that wet second coat glistening from baseboard to baseboard. All it needs and asks is twenty-four undisturbed hours to dry in. Some of these fine old New England floors, especially the hard yellow pine from the Carolinas that was common in the better homes a hundred years ago, but also the newer floors of short tongued pieces of oak or maple, shock you with their carefree gouges and cigarette burns and the black scuff marks synthetic soles leave. Do people still give that kind of party? I entered this trade, after fifteen years in a white-collar, smooth-talking line of work, as a refugee from romantic disgrace, and abstain from passing judgment, even on clients arrogant enough to schedule a dinner party six hours after I give their hall parquet the finish coat.

Updike had the reputation of reflecting the life-style of affluent bedroom communities of the kind found to the north of Boston, but his roots are much more like the working-class character above. In an unpublished interview that appears in the latest New York Magazine (not the New Yorker), he reminisces about the Depression:

I was born in ’32, when the Depression was at its worst. It’s frightening: From one Depression to the next. Years ago I saw a psychiatrist for a couple of years, and when I’d done a couple sessions describing myself, he said, ‘Oh, it certainly smacks of the Depression.’ I’ll tell you what was nice about being born in 1932: There were a lot of only children. Because people were pulling in there, they were scared. My mother wanted to have another child, I believe, but my father was out of work. He was thrown out of work and my father simultaneously lost his investments. They weren’t enormous, but they were enough to sustain him and his wife in the nice small-town house where I grew up. The men combined forces, my father did get a job and scrape through, but it was a scraping-through, even relative to the other people in the town. A schoolteacher makes less than a full-fashion knitter, which is what a lot of the men did. But you’ve seen movies about that era, and there was a certain coziness, and a dollar went a long way, and people were kind of kind to each other. It was considered correct form to give a dollar to bums when they came to the back door, and when they did, we did. But … it was a very stable world for a child. Children don’t like change, they don’t like changing grades, or I didn’t, [they don’t] love changing houses, but the Depression froze small towns. And then the war came along, and froze them additionally. So by ’45, it was a world that hadn’t really changed in fifteen years. Now, you get used to nothing looking the same and nothing being there that was there. It’s a different world entirely.

Updike is a slippery figure when it comes to politics. There are obvious indications of less savory impulses, such as “Witches of Eastwick” that basically equates independent women with the Devil. Or the more recent “Terrorist”, which is Updike’s attempt to deal with 9/11. Ahmad, the 18 year old protagonist, was in the eyes of Harper’s Magazine reviewer Robert Boyers nothing but a one-dimensional “monster”. Considering Updike’s social ties as a successful adult to a mostly Wasp upper-middle class, it seems doubtful that his Ahmad could have been anything else.

Since it has been over four decades that I read an Updike novel, my memories of “Rabbit Redux” and “Couples” remain a bit dim. Written in 1971, “Rabbit Redux” was Updike’s attempt to come to terms with the radicalization all around him. As part of a four-part series of novels chronicling the life and times of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, this-the second in the series-has Rabbit paired up with a drug-dealing African-American Vietnam veteran named Skeeter, who argues with him about the war and racism. The novel has the same kind of mixture of fascination and disgust with the “Other” that can be found in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog”, a similarly flawed attempt to engage with the stormy political struggles of the period. In a N.Y. Times review of “Rabbit Run”, Anatole Broyard wrote:

Skeeter is something new in black characters, including those in books by blacks. He goes beyond the familiar anger and rhetoric into the wild humor blacks no longer seem to allow themselves. He is an inspired preacher of the inchoate religiosity that seems to be gaining ground with some militant blacks — a religion that seems to be midway between Black Mass and store-front revivalism. Skeeter is a compound of drug-induced delusions of grandeur, real indignation, homicidal rage and quirky genius. He has a talent for provoking, for getting to the absolute bottom, for traveling through disillusion and coming out on the other side, where everything is exposed.

He is a more potent bomb than any the black revolution has yet thrown. Neither good nor evil exactly, he is the ultimate catalyst or kibitzer, a blue-note howl of pain and laughter such as Charlie Parker might have blown. What Updike conjures out of the combination of Skeeter, Jill, Nelson and Rabbit makes most writing about blacks, sex and families seem like something out of a children’s book. It will leave Americans shuddering for a long, long time.

It should of course be mentioned that Broyard was an African-American himself, a fact that he kept hidden from everybody else. In 2007, Broyard’s daughter Bliss published a memoir titled “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets” which described her discovery of her father’s true identity.

Although it was written 3 years before “Rabbit Run”, I have much sharper memories of “Couples”, a novel about wife-swapping in a wealthy Boston suburb that had all of the entertainment value of “The Witches of Eastwick” but little of its misogynist baggage. It is a good novel to bring along with you on a beach holiday.

In trying to come to terms with Updike’s legacy, I found two articles written in 1990 most useful. The first was by Gary Wills and appeared in “The New York Review of Books”. Titled “Long Distance Runner”, it is a review both of “Rabbit at Rest”, the last in the series, as well as its predecessors. Wills, a Roman Catholic progressive, holds a rather dim view of Updike’s politics as indicated on his judgment on “Rabbit Redux”:


Updike now says that he picked up the Angstrom story again because people kept asking where Rabbit went after running off at the first novel’s end. Those people had missed the novel’s point-that nothing can happen to Harry except perpetual flight perpetually baffled.

Rabbit Redux is an attempt to use Angstrom as a seismograph of the Sixties as he had been of the Fifties. But the sensors for registering the mild tremors of the Fifties were not adequate to record the earthquake of the Sixties-so Rabbit becomes an even less convincing instrument for Updike’s purposes. The lower-class “everyman” is drawn to the pinched agenda of Richard Nixon, defending the war in Vietnam and railing against long-haired hippies. He has a flag decal on his car’s back window. He flies into a temper with critics of the war:

He has gotten loud again; it makes him rigid, the thoughts of treachery and ingratitude befouling the flag, befouling him.

But the inner life of a Nixonite is not a thrilling vista for the novelist, so Updike arranges an entirely implausible way for Rabbit to become a fellow traveler of revolution. Janice [his wife] is now having an affair, and a black fellow worker at the print shop where Rabbit works invites him to a black nightclub. This black has a white hippie at the club he wants to get rid of, and he has chosen the bigoted anti-hippie, Harry Angstrom, as the most eligible person for this task. Harry takes Jill home, and a black revolutionary friend of hers moves in. Skeeter, the black, spends hours berating and catechizing Rabbit. In the resulting seminar-orgy, Rabbit obediently reads aloud long passages from Frederick Douglass (filling pages in the easiest way). Rabbit watches complacently as his thirteen-year-old son, Nelson, turns into one of the long-haired hippies he hates. Resentful neighbors finally burn down Rabbit’s house-the apocalypse of the Sixties scaled to angstrom measurement-and Jill dies in the blaze. Nelson hates his father henceforth for complicity in her death.

The novel is a mess, Updike’s attempt to show he is on top of all the trends of his chosen decade. Rabbit is even less a character and more a journalistic device. A middle American would not be so sympathetic with the less convincing aspects of Sixties rebelliousness; but an Ipswich sophisticate (toying with rebellious styles while wanting to preserve the order that upholds his prosperity) might indulge such fantasies. Under the fiction of Rabbit reaching up from the working class is the reality of Updike reaching down to a solidarity with Nixon’s values. In his memoirs Updike paints a picture of himself at war with the anti-war movement that is convincing in just the ways Rabbit is not. On the one hand, Updike and his friends “smoked pot, wore dashikis and love beads, and frugged.” On the other hand, Updike “felt obliged to defend Johnson and Rusk and Rostow, and then Nixon and Kissinger.” He regularly got angry in Rabbit’s way: “My face would become hot, my voice high and tense and wildly stuttery.” But Updike in his own person was reacting less to the actual situation in Indochina than to the style of Johnson’s and Nixon’s critics:

I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for the President.

The protest, from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment.

They were full of aesthetic disdain for their own defenders.

War was being waged by a privileged few upon the administration and the American majority that had elected it.

Updike’s distaste for the aesthetics of protest is itself an aesthetic shiver, an expression of the reactionary dandyism he shares with Tom Wolfe and William Buckley more than with his working-class hero, Harry Angstrom. Critics noticed that there was too much of Updike’s sensibility in the Rabbit of Run. There is too much of Updike’s own political-theological nonsense in the Rabbit of Redux. So we get John Updike playing Peggy Noonan:

They, Unitarian or Episcopalian or Jewish, supported Roosevelt and Truman and Stevenson out of enlightenment, de haut en bas, whereas in my heart of hearts, I, however veneered with an education and button-down shirts, was de bas.

Joining Rabbit is now an act of homage, not of creation. Not so much a nostalgie de la boue. More like nostalgie du boob.

I can’t say that I can argue with Wills’s findings, although my memory of “Rabbit Redux” is rather faded as I stated above. However, I am inclined to take Nation Magazine reviewer Thomas Disch (a novelist himself who committed suicide on July 4th partly it is believed from the anguish he felt over being threatened with being evicted from his rent-controlled apartment) seriously in his own December 3rd, 1990 review of “Rabbit at Rest”, where he takes issue with Garry Wills:

Surely one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed these books so much is that I see myself and “my people” mirrored in them as in no other work of American fiction I’ve read. Most literary accounts of middle-class life, from Flaubert to Sinclair Lewis, have been satirical and dismissive, while popular fiction sentimentalizes and sanitizes Middle America out of recognition. Updike’s Rabbit and the landscape he inhabits more closely resemble the world I’ve witnessed during the span of the four novels-1959 through 1989-than any other work of American literature I know. And it does what art can in the way of valorizing its commonplaces. For me that makes the Rabbit tetralogy the best large-scale literary work by an American in this century (including the many-volumed magnum opuses of Dos Passos, Dreiser and Fauker), and Updike the best American writer. Somebody has finally written, albeit inadvertently and in the form of a tetralogy, the Great American Novel.

January 27, 2009

E.C. “Paddy” Apling

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Paddy Apling

On a Saturday afternoon in early January I had the distinct pleasure to meet with E.C. “Paddy” Apling, an 84 year old Marxmail subscriber who like dozens of others over the years have looked me up in New York City. I believe that most have found me quite amiable in person in contrast to my carefully cultivated mad dog internet persona.

I was particularly interested in meeting a veteran of the 30s and 40s period since I share my friend Paul Buhle’s commitment to oral history. I was also involved in an oral history project with an old friend from the SWP who has done video interviews with that truly “greatest generation”, namely those who stood up to capitalism and imperialism during the darkest hours of humanity.

Despite being called Paddy, he is not Irish. As a youth, he found his birth name Edward Chatterton a bit stuffy for his taste. Paddy explained to me that when he was very young (5-10), he used to stay at his aunt’s big farm house, which had three staircases (one with doors top and bottom leading to the servants’ quarters), where he would hide from the elders, especially the formidable Aunt Kate who would summon him as if in a Dickens novel: “Edward Chatterton, come here at once”. This persuaded him through a kind of aversion therapy to adopt another name. The name Paddy came from a show in London in 1924 called “Paddy the Next Best Thing” (his mother had been hoping for a girl.)

Reflecting now on his family background, Paddy writes:

From which you will see that some, at least, of my family origins are more patrician that proletarian – something that used to bother me in my early political career [the APLING family come from farming artisan stock (thatchers), grandpa APLING was a Solicitor’s Managing Clerk in the City of London, founder of the Solicitor’s Clerks Association and becoming a Freeman of the City of London, and Dad was manager of a small department in the Eagle Star Insurance Co.] – I can remember a distinct feeling of “class hostility” on my first appearance at a tenant’s meeting wearing my cavalry boots and very probably a distinct appearance of an ex-army officer – a hostility which soon evaporated when I spoke and was immediately indicted into the committee….

The one subject that inevitably comes up when I meet with comrades, from whatever ideological tradition, is how they became political. To some extent, I wonder if it is in our genes since there are so few people who become radicals even though they are responding to the social or economic crisis. In Paddy’s case, it was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia that tipped the 9 year old towards the left.

A few years later, the French had elected a Popular Front government that was hailed by the European left. Paddy’s mom, a high school teacher, became part of an exchange program with French teachers. This led to Paddy visiting France, where he was in the company of Popular Front supporters, who were either in the CP or very close to it. By the time the war started, Paddy was in the party himself.

When I told Paddy that I was going to be blogging about our get-together, he suggested that I could find some relevant information on a website devoted to British CP biographies. Here’s the entry on Paddy:

A food scientist by training, in his Communist Party work, Apling was mainly a background planner, information source, writer of leaflets, press representative and sideman to the charismatic leader of the time, though he was no mean street speaker himself.

His innate leadership qualities were, obviously, recognised in the army, where he was sent to Sandhurst (then Royal Armoured Corps OCTU), and commissioned just after VE-Day. He expected to be sent to the Far East – but after more training in 1944 at Bovingdon and Barnard Castle again, VJ-Day intervened and he joined 4th Royal Tank Regiment in Venezia Giulia, Italy. After a year as a successful troop leader, of a troop consisting of battle-hardened men, most of whom had fought their way through Italy, he was seconded to 2nd Armoured Brigade HQ and made Brigade Welfare Officer. There he was given control, handing over the Brigade HQ to the Italian Army and then responsibility for the loading of the SS Canterbury Castle, carrying the last of the Brigade from Venice to Egypt after the Peace Treaty in June 1947. This was all probably because he had very quickly learned to speak Italian. Subsequently, he spent some 4 months in the Suez Canal Zone.

In the post-war period, Paddy was involved in the Ilford tenant’s struggle, a major event in which the key figure was Frank Chinnery, a party full-timer, who had served in the Palestine Police. Having moved away from Ilford in 1959, Paddy was later in party branches at Chesham and Reading. In recent years, he has engaged in much local work and interchange over the internet and, just for the record (!) remains alive and well.

During our conversations, Paddy explained that he remained in the CP through the 1960s even though many would leave because of the Khrushchev revelations, the suppression of the Hungarian revolution, etc. Paddy always regarded such matters as mainly relevant to the Russian comrades and preferred to focus on local politics. This is of course entirely in keeping with the analysis of the “revisionist” historians who look at the CP’s in a much more complex fashion than the traditional Theodore Draper interpretation of  it as a pawn directed by Moscow. For activists on a local level, their party life was about building trade unions or fighting racism-not providing apologetics for Stalin’s latest initiative. Paddy puts it this way:

My political career has always been based on non-party-political issued – trade unionism (involving particularly interventions in the peace movement and the campaign against the atomic bomb); the tenant’s movement – being a council tenant until 1959 when we moved away from Ilford (soon to become part of Greater London) to the country to benefit the health of our younger son who was severly asthmatic (and died young, aged 12, in 1963). From 1950 to 1959 I was Association of Scientific Workers delegate to Ilford Trades Council, (and for several years Treasurer), branch delegate to the London Council of the AScW – and was twice a delegate to CPGB congresses.

Now living in rural Norfolk, I am constantly being sought after for help and advice by local councillors (particularly as I led the organisation and organised the statistical analysis of the parish “village appraisal” a few years ago, which I prepared for publication). They are well aware of my political views, which I have never kept secret – and by the local churchwardens (we keep the key of the church and look after the church records), who along with the priests, who also know my atheism and left-wing politics but remain good friends.

All in all, I found Paddy deeply engaging on a personal level. Over the years we have quarreled about issues such as DDT, etc. in which I tend to agree much more with my old friend and comrade the late Mark Jones, who I should mention came out of a British Communist background as well. It drives home once more how secondary such differences are when we have our eyes on the prize, namely the socialist transformation of society.

This note I received from Paddy last Friday should give you a sense of the warmth and the political passion of one of our elder communist statesmen.

Hallo Louis,

It is time for me to write to say how much I enjoyed our meeting in Manhattan, and to thank you for the DVD of the film DRESDEN which you gave me.

I arrived home at lunch-time last Wednesday and have been since then been suffering badly from jet lag – with my biological clock insisting on staying on EST for over a week, only really yesterday recovering my normal sleep pattern from 10 to 11 pm till 7.30 am GMT instead of 5 hours back !!

I have not suffered such long-term jet lag after previous cross-Atlantic voyages, so just assume this is reminding me that I am not so young as I was !!

Also an infernal collection of mail which I am still dealing with…. One thing that I HAVE done, though, is to buy a copy of Richard Seymour’s new book, (which had a good review in the Morning Star on 11th Jan) along with a small paperback (also from VERSO) on The Levellers – The Putney Debates, to add to be long-beloved book of the writings of the other well-known Leveller, Gerard Winstanley.

The Dresden DVD will not play on my recorder as its use is limited to N America, but I have viewed the film on my PC and was sufficiently impressed to say that I regard it is a major anti-war film to be regarded as on a par with the classic “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930). Definitely 5-star rating. I have not seen a review of it – so if I find the DVD is available in UK I think I should write a review of it for the Morning Star.

I have not yet looked through any of the supplementary info on the DVD, but was impressed that the film did not take a position of either support or condemnation of the raid. The views of devastation, of course, brought to mind my first view of post-war Germany, when I went on the Medlock train early in 1946 on my posting to 4th Royal Tank Regiment in Italy, and at the first meal halt in Germany, at Karlsruhe, I walked through the (undamaged) central hall of the railway station – through which I had to tread carefully through a vast array of refugees sleeping on the floor – to view the complete devastation of the city (repeated at Pforzheim and other meal halts en route to Villach in Austria).  At the time, of course, I had little sympathy for those who suffered in the devastation (assumed as all supporters of Nazism), having seen my parents and both grand-parents lose their homes (and mother & her father being injured) as a result of German bombing, V1s and V2s……

February 1945 was, of course, the time of V2 rockets on London and news of bombings of Germany were just part of the wallpaper, and I was in officer training at Sandhurst, the the RAC OCTU; but my feelings throughout 1943-5 were that city bombings were a waste of resources – and not worth the losses to the RAF, which would far better be concentrated on the use light fighter-bombers in support of the army – dealing with specific targets close to the front. In hindsight, however, there does seem to be argument for suggesting that the Dresden raid can be likened to Hiroshima – as a warning to the Soviet Union of Anglo-American power – with immediate military advantage as of little consequence in the thinking of the powers-that-be..

Regards and comradely greetings,



January 26, 2009

Statement on Gaza

Filed under: Palestine — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

From Steven Salaita Assistant Professor, English, Virginia Tech

International Writers and Scholars Endorse Academic Boycott of Israel

We stand in support of the indigenous Palestinian people in Gaza, who are fighting for their survival against one of the most brutal uses of state power in both this century and the last.

We condemn Israel’s recent (December 2008/ January 2009) breaches of international law in the Gaza Strip, which include the bombing of densely-populated neighborhoods, illegal deployment of the chemical white phosphorous, and attacks on schools, ambulances, relief agencies, hospitals, universities, and places of worship. We condemn Israel’s restriction of access to media and aid workers.

We reject as false Israel’s characterization of its military attacks on Gaza as retaliation. Israel’s latest assault on Gaza is part of its longtime racist jurisprudence against its indigenous Palestinian population, during which the Israeli state has systematically dispossessed, starved, tortured, and economically exploited the Palestinian people.

We reject as untrue the Israeli government’s claims that the Palestinians use civilians as human shields, and that Hamas is an irredeemable terrorist organization. Without endorsing its platforms or philosophy, we recognize Hamas as a democratically elected ruling party. We do not endorse the regime of any existing Arab state, and call for the upholding of internationally mandated human rights and democratic elections in all Arab states.

We call upon our fellow writers and academics in the United States to question discourses that justify and rationalize injustice, and to address Israeli assaults on civilians in Gaza as one of the most important moral issues of our time.

We call upon institutions of higher education in the U.S. to cut ties with Israeli academic institutions, dissolve study abroad programs in Israel, and divest institutional funds from Israeli companies, using the 1980s boycott against apartheid South Africa as a model.

We call on all people of conscience to join us in boycotting Israeli products and institutions until a just, democratic state for all residents of Palestine/Israel comes into existence.

Mohammed Abed
Elmaz Abinader
Diana Abu-Jaber
Ali Abunimah
Opal Palmer Adisa
Deborah Al-Najjar
Evelyn Azeeza Alsultany
Amina Baraka
Amiri Baraka
George Bisharat
Sherwin Bitsui
Breyten Breytenbach
Van Brock
Hayan Charara
Alison Hedge Coke
Lara Deeb
Vicente Diaz
Marilyn Hacker
Mechthild Hart
Sam Hamill
Randa Jarrar
Fady Joudah
Mohja Kahf
Rima Najjar Kapitan
Persis Karim
J. Kehaulani Kaunanui
Haunani Kay-Trask
David Lloyd
Sunaina Maira
Nur Masalha
Khaled Mattawa
Daniel AbdalHayy Moore
Aileen Moreton-Robinson
Nadine Naber
Marcy Newman
Viet Nguyen
Simon J. Ortiz
Vijay Prashad
Steven Salaita
Therese Saliba
Sarita See
Deema Shehabi
Matthew Shenoda
Naomi Shihab Nye
Magid Shihade
Vandana Shiva
Noenoe Silva
Andrea Smith
Ahdaf Soueif
Ghada Talhami
Frank X. Walker
Robert Warrior

January 23, 2009

Radiant City; The Unforeseen

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Koch-Lorber — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

Two powerful documentaries about the social and environmental impacts of suburban sprawl are now available on home video. The first, “Radiant City“, combines the documentary form with some surrealistic touches in an effort to show how far removed a vast subdivision of Calgary is from the title of a 1935 Le Corbusier book: “La Ville radieuse“, or radiant city. The second is “The Unforeseen“, which explores a struggle that took place in Austin, Texas about 25 years ago between environmentalists and some truly villainous real estate developers. If these two movies do not convince you that suburbia is no longer sustainable or worth sustaining for that matter, then nothing will.

“Radiant City” is a story narrated by members of the Moss family who live in one of the oversized new homes in a vast subdivision that is utterly devoid of trees. The houses seem as if they were dropped from helicopters onto barren tundra, with no more than 10 or 15 feet separating each house. Apart from the occasional swimming pool and strip mall, there is not a single amenity associated with urban life. The two Moss children escort the viewer around their neighborhood making sardonic observations. We follow the boy to the top of a cell phone transmitter tower where the rooftops of what Malvina Reynolds once called “little boxes” can be seen in all directions, except these boxes are rather large. He tells us that he can’t stay in the tower too long because it will fry his brain and maybe cause a tumor.

The father admits that the subdivision is sterile and depressing but confesses that he had no alternative. If he wanted to live in a more traditional suburban or urban neighborhood, he would have had to accept far less space. Ironically, the creation of such oversized houses has led to an increasing atomization since such subdivisions foster a retreat to one’s own house where recreation (video games, cable TV, etc.) are geared to the family unit rather than the community as a whole. For that matter, there really is no such thing as community in the subdivision even though its inhabitants keep using the word.

One of the experts on urban malaise interviewed throughout “Radiant City” is James Howard Kunstler – the author of “The Geography of Nowhere,” who co-director Jim Brown acknowledges as a major influence. In an interview that can be read in the press notes section of the movie’s website, Brown explains his purpose in making such a movie:

Suburbs promise the good life – but they don’t deliver it. They promise community but in fact they atomize people into weird anti-communities. Walk down a street in a recently built suburb – and it’s so eerie and quiet. There’s nobody on the streets. No birds because there are no trees. Sprawl eliminates the features that make communities distinct. Unique local characteristics disappear in a strange monoculture. As we approach an age of resource scarcity – suburbia is the worst possible model for urban development. It overtaxes our dwindling supplies of petroleum and water. But I I don’t think it will change until we’re hit with a real crisis, and it may already be too late. India and China are racing to copy us, but there’s still no real will here in the West to change. We’re not ready to turn the corner yet.

“The Unforeseen” pits local Austin residents committed to the traditionally laid-back, nature-worshipping life style of this truly beautiful city and real estate developers bent on turning it into another Houston or Dallas. As someone who lived in Houston, Texas in the early 1970s on assignment with the Socialist Workers Party (trust me, that’s the only way I would have ended up there) and who had occasion to visit Austin from time to time, I can assure you that it was like going from hell up to heaven. With its sterile subdivisions, parking garages and strip malls, Houston, Texas might be considered as a sister city to the Calgary of “Radiant City”.

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Gary Bradley, an ambitious real estate developer who built a 4000-acre Circle C Ranch subdivision just outside of Austin, just on the brink of the Savings and Loan crisis which destroyed him. As interviewee Bill Greider explains the real estate bubble of the early 1990s, you are struck by how similar it is to the one today. In either case, you are dealing with a financial industry that has convinced itself that there will be an inexhaustible market for suburban housing and shopping centers that will reach to the moon and in both cases the finance/construction tower of Babel comes crashing to the ground.

Before the crash, Bradley enters into an alliance with another real estate developer to take on the local environmentalists who question the benefits of suburban sprawl, especially the impact it will have on Barton Springs, a local waterhole that has been a Mecca to local residents for generations. That developer is none other than Freeport-McMoran, the multinational corporation that operates a gold mine in Papua, New Guinea that has been responsible for dumping a mountain of waste into local streams. In other words, the perfect company to turn Austin into a toxic dump.

Dick Brown, a lobbyist for Freeport-McMoran, is interviewed throughout the movie making the case for “property rights”, all the while working on a plastic model of an F-16 fighter plane. It is hard to tell which is more off-putting, the spectacle of a grown man playing with such a creepy toy or his defense of profits above people.

The movie also features interviews with Robert Redford, one of the movie’s producers, who used to visit Barton Springs as a child and still has vividly pleasant memories of those days. He also has fond memories of Los Angeles in the early 1940s before it too became like Calgary and Houston. Although I don’t have much use for celebrity liberals in general, I found his observations truly affecting since they jibe with my own reflections on a golden age that has disappeared. Even though my own home town remains as rustic and under-populated as it was in the 1950s, the local lake has been destroyed by “development”, i.e., sewer drainage.

While I was watching the two movies, I could not but help make the connection with indigenous peoples who lived near Calgary and Austin, one group I know through direct contact and the other through scholarly material.

Calgary is in Alberta, the home of the Blackfoot reservation that lies on the border with Montana. I visited the reservation about 10 years ago and got a chance to see first-hand how American Indians lived. No matter how impoverished, they still valued community (and communal values) in a way that the contemporary suburban dwellers of Calgary cannot.

Meanwhile, I am finishing a reading project that has lasted nearly 6 months that is focused on three tribes of the Southwest: the Comanche, the Apaches, and the Quechuans-all of whom are represented as savagely dangerous “Others” in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”. Suffice it to say, the Indians of the 18th and 19th century should not be romanticized in “noble savage” fashion, but up until they were fully integrated into the capitalist economy that surrounded them, they knew how to live in harmony with nature. At the risk of sounding reactionary, I would argue that we have to learn such lessons from the savage or die at the hands of civilized capitalist excess.

January 21, 2009

Spiked online’s obsession with “anti-Semitism”

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:20 pm

Frank Furedi: more upset over broken Starbucks windows than white phosphorus in Gaza

I am somewhat ambivalent about answering Spiked online since so few people nowadays, especially them, view it as having anything to do with the left. With the exception of James Heartfield, just about every contributor to Spiked has stopped pretending to be part of the left. However, since they are in the habit of writing “critiques” of the left, particularly the activist sector that organizes mass demonstrations against the war in Iraq and more lately the war on Gaza, it is worth responding to them.

Since Spiked online accuses protesters of adapting to anti-Semitism, a charge that is almost as serious as the one being mounted at notoriously pro-imperialist outlets such as Harry’s Place in which the demonstrations themselves are described as anti-Semitic, it is worth countering them here. Ultimately, one of the main talking points of the Zionist propaganda machine is that Israel’s critics are anti-Semitic. It is rather sad that ex-leftists involved with Spiked can get on board the Zionist propaganda machine but this would not be the first time that radicals have traveled this route. Just read Richard Seymour’s “The Liberal Defense of Murder”, a book that I am about half-way through now, to get the big picture.

It is worth noting that Professor Frank Furedi, the founder of their current, has had another major complaint about the Israel-Palestine dispute apart from the specious “anti-Semitism” question. This is from a piece that Frank Furedi wrote for the U. of Kent departmental newsletter several years ago:

Tuesday: I am in a quiet state of agitation. The headlines are dominated by the outbreak of violence in the Middle East and no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember the name of the right-wing Israeli politician, whose visit to the Muslim shrine (whose name I can also not recall), sparked the whole thing off.

Wednesday: More violence in Israel. But things are looking up — the debate on sex education is in the news. That’s more my kind of issue. Now if only there was another nice controversy about something with a sociological edge.

Thursday: I am feeling depressed. The violence in the Middle East dominates the news. The media have dropped the sex education debate.

One supposes that Furedi would be happier if the demonstrations taking place during the war on Gaza had been organized on behalf of how to achieve simultaneous climax during intercourse, but fortunately the activists have a better sense of where their priorities lie.

Thankfully, Furedi’s “After Gaza: what’s behind 21st-century anti-Semitism?” makes no mention of sex education, but it is a bit fucked—to use the vernacular. Its most egregious error is to consider the question of anti-Semitism ahistorically. For example, when windows are broken at a Starbucks because the president is an outspoken Zionist, Furedi worries that a Kristallnacht is in the offing.

Increasingly, protesters are targeting Jews for being Jews. They have agitated for the boycott and even harassment of ‘Israeli shops’, but in practice this means boycotting and harassing Jewish-owned shops, such as Marks & Spencer (some of whose stores have been barricaded by anti-Israel protesters) and Starbucks (a number of whose coffee shops have been attacked in London and elsewhere). Some protesters in Italy don’t share the linguistic subtlety of those ostensibly calling for a boycott of ‘Israeli shops’. Giancarlo Desiderati, spokesman for the trade union Flaica-Cub, has called for a boycott of Jewish businesses in Rome. A leaflet issued by his union informed Romans that anything they purchase in Jewish-owned shops will be ‘tainted by blood’.

Once upon a time, when Furedi was a Marxist rather than the libertarian that he is today, he might have considered the question of the economic crisis that fueled anti-Semitism. The likelihood that Jews will be persecuted in the same way that they were in Germany during the 1930s is almost nil. Instead, the likely victims will be Arab and African immigrants. For example, Great Britain’s largest fascist organization, the BNP, has been virulently opposed to the left-wing protestors targeted by Furedi:

Indeed, the destruction of Israel (which is the generally stated aim of all the far-left and Muslim demonstrators screaming and on occasion rioting outside the Israeli Embassy in London, and the generally unstated aim of the far smaller number of neo-Nazi cranks siding with them on the Internet) would most definitely not placate a single hardline Muslim.

One of the fundamental lessons of the West’s long and at times desperate defence against Islam’s institutionalised aggression, sexual predation and imperialism, is that every victory for Islamic fighters reinforces the hysterical certainty in the word of the Prophet and in Islam’s self-proclaimed destiny to conquer the entire world.

Now these are the real successors to Adolph Hitler, not the left-wing protestors who break a Starbucks window. While it is obviously wrong to target Jewish-owned businesses, the main activity being carried out today by the left are mass demonstrations demanding an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza. If Furedi and his co-thinkers were half as worked up by entire city blocks being leveled by IDF bombs as they were by a broken Starbucks window, they would be taken more seriously by their readers. For long-time monitors of this peculiar British group, such as me, the last thing we have learned to expect from them is a desire to engage with the left. They are much happier in the role of nose-thumbing contrarians, even when this means being wrong 99 percent of the time.

Most of Furedi’s article is about attitudes toward the Jews of Europe rather than anti-Semitism as an institution. In early 20th century history, Jews suffered institutional oppression just as Blacks in the U.S. did. For example, Hitler enacted laws that were modeled on Jim Crow laws in the U.S. Also, before the Bolshevik-led revolution, Czarist Russia was rife with anti-Semitism. For example, Jews were forced to live in the “Pale of Settlement” and pay twice the tax that a Christian paid. In other less repressive countries, Jews suffered job discrimination and were excluded from educational institutions. In France, the Dreyfus affair in France epitomized the tendency for Jews to be singled out and punished.

What is missing from Furedi’s analysis is the role of the state. If anti-Semitism were a real threat today, there would be evidence of proposed legislation to punish Jews as Jews. No such evidence exists, nor is there evidence that Jews are being excluded from professions or universities because of their ethnicity or religion.

If anything, raising “anti-Semitism” as some sort of impending threat is just another example of the public relations campaign that gets mounted whenever Palestinians are asserting themselves. During the spate of suicide bombings in Israel taking place in 2001, a major campaign against alleged anti-Semitism on American campuses was organized. It was transparently clear that the real target of this campaign was the anti-Zionist left, as I tried to make clear to one of the signatories of an open letter on anti-Semitism that appeared in the N.Y. Times:

Open Letter to Bard College President on “Anti-Semitism” on campus

Oct. 8, 2002

Dear Leon Botstein,

I hope everything is going okay with you and your master plan for turning Bard College into a first-rate American institution. No doubt the new Performing Institute designed by megastar Frank Gehry will catapult Bard into the stratosphere even though to me it looks like a melting gingerbread house designed by somebody who ate one too many peyote buttons. But–hey–what do I know. For me, some of the most emblematic buildings at Bard during my stint (1961-1965) were the barracks that had been constructed after WWII for returning veterans. They might have looked like dormitories for migrant farm laborers, but they did contain some extraordinary students. Other times–other places.

But the reason I write you now is to express my disappointment that you would jump on the “Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism” bandwagon. Surely, you must understand that this was the purpose of the full-page ad in the NY Times, even though it was framed in terms of protecting Jewish students from another Kristallnacht. Here at Columbia University, where I have worked for the past 10 years, you can find a vibrant anti-Zionist movement that is spearheaded by Jews in fact. Now maybe they are in some sort of dark conspiracy to punish their co-religionists but mostly they seem intent on raising fellow students’ awareness of what Gush Shalom leader Uri Avnery calls “a cruel, brutal and colonizing state.”

When you turn to the Chronicles of Higher Education (Oct. 4) article on “anti-Semitism” on campus, the evidence is pretty thin. Your fellow signatory Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College of Columbia University, said that he noticed a graffiti on a men’s-room wall that said, “Let’s kill the Jews.” He said he looked in several stalls and found other graffiti, both anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic.

Now my offices are in Teachers College and I have had occasion to visit many of their facilities on account of my chronic irritable bowel syndrome. But I have never seen such graffiti myself. Is it possible that President Levine is manufacturing evidence like the Gulf of Tonkin incident? I wouldn’t rule this out myself.

(I would hasten to add that the only threatening graffiti I spotted was “Death to Short People”, which is on the first floor of Thorndike, in the rightmost stall in the bathroom near the photocopying room. I often go there to do my business and read a little CLR James while I’m at it. Now I have never felt threatened by this graffiti, even though I barely reach 5’6″.)

On the other hand, there are lots of real attacks taking place against professors and students who are protesting Israeli brutality. I am acquainted with Mohammad Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern, whose “dossier” has turned up in a website run by Daniel Pipes. Along with institutions such as my employer Columbia University, these voices are being singled out as virtually in league with suicide bombers.

I think you probably understand why this point of view is being policed right now. The Zionist establishment is deathly afraid that a divestment movement might take root among Jewish progressives on campus. My suggestion to all the esteemed college presidents who signed the ad is to use their good influence to stop Israel from acting like apartheid South Africa. That is surely the best way that such a movement can be preempted.

Respectfully yours,

Louis Proyect, class of 1965

January 20, 2009

Deconstructing Obama

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

Comments on selections from Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address

Thank you, thank you.

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

[Ariel Gonzalez wrote an article on Huffington Post about whether Obama should thank Bush or not. He concluded, “If Obama thanks this miserable incompetent, I won’t be angry. I’ve decided not to criticize our new president for a year.” Well, that’s the reasons that ingrates like me and Dennis Perrin exist, I suppose.]

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

[Hard choices… Our health care is too costly… Guess what comes next. If you said “Medicare benefits reduction”, you win the prize-you crafty extremist.]

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

[No thanks. I vote for conflict and discord, the more the merrier.]

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

[Worn out dogmas? Like this? “In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.”]

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

[Who ever wrote this gob of overblown, purple prose should be taken out and horsewhipped.]

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

[Yes, they wrote books about that. They are called Horatio Alger stories and they are bullshit. Bill Gates got where he is by being born into one of Seattle’s richest families and by exploiting technology that had hitherto been common property.]

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

[You’ll note the inclusion of Khe Sahn here, clearly an attempt to co-opt even further the right wing of the Republican Party. Poor Abe Lincoln would be rolling over in his grave to see Gettysburg and the imperialist nightmare of Vietnam linked together.]

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

[Really? Today’s NY Times reports on the meager infrastructure spending that we can expect from your administration:

When President-elect Barack Obama announced last month that he would revive the economy with the largest public works program since the dawn of the Interstate System of highways, advocates for the nation’s long-neglected infrastructure were euphoric.

Some hoped that the time had finally come to bring high-speed rail to the United States, or to wean the nation from its dependence on foreign oil with new or transformed public transit systems, or to take bold action to solve the problems of rising populations and falling reservoir levels across the Southwest.

But those hopes are fading. As the details of the plan come into focus, big transformative building projects seem unlikely. And the plan does not begin to provide the kind of money that civil engineers believe is needed to bring the nation’s aging bridges and water systems and roads and transit systems to a state of good repair.

Less than one-third of the $825 billion plan that was introduced Thursday in the House would go to infrastructure, and much of that would go to high-tech projects, rather than traditional concrete-and-steel building and repair work. The rest would go to tax cuts and aid to help states pay for health care and education. At a time when the American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that $1.6 trillion is needed to improve the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the proposal calls for spending $30 billion on roads and, to the consternation of transit advocates, only $10 billion on transit and rail.]

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

[What was the force of our example that convinced the people of Nicaragua to vote for the U.S. backed candidate in 1990? I always had the impression that killing peasants, burning their crops and bombing their tractors had more to do with the outcome than the writings of Thomas Jefferson. As far as “humility and restraint” are concerned, I would advise you to eliminate these words from your vocabulary after the spectacle of a 150 million dollar inauguration, which is 3 times what George W. Bush spent.]

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

[Inducing terror and slaughtering innocents? You wouldn’t be referring to the Israeli Defense Force, would you? Oh, I see. You were referring to the filthy Hamas that was trying to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.]

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

[Well, now. Can we interpret this as a signal that Egypt will no longer be the beneficiary of 10 billion dollars a year in American aid? What’s that you’re saying? You only were speaking of the corruption of our enemies, not our friends. Gosh, I should have known better.]

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

[You have certainly picked the right person to carry out such a mission. Larry Summers was infamous for suggesting that the U.S. export its pollution to Africa since the desperate continent was likely to accept poisons for cash payments.]

[6 paragraphs of concluding blather was clipped.]

January 16, 2009

Sam Farber, the ISO, and the Angolan Revolution

Filed under: Africa,cuba,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Nito Alves: the Bernard Coard of Angola

In the 1950s Tony Cliff developed an analysis of the USSR and the satellite states that while theoretically flawed at least had the merit of being engaged with a palpable reality, namely that Stalinism violated everything that socialists believed in. It was such an evil system that they applied a term to it that was intended to convey the ultimate form of opprobrium in our lexicon. It was “state capitalist”. By calling these countries “capitalist”-after a fashion-you draw a clear class line, whether or not of course it corresponds to reality.

Since Marx described capitalism as a social system that revolved around profit (“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets”), it was rather hard to describe the plodding Soviet system that was by all evidence indifferent to profits in those terms. Leaving aside this key distinction, the main merit of the state capitalist ideology is that it allowed its defenders to feel superior to their Stalinist enemies and the old-school Trotskyists who still insisted that the USSR rested on collectivized property relations.

When the Cuban revolution took place, the state capitalists were thrown a curve. Since socialism could only be carried out from “below” by parties that had mastered the profundities of state capitalist theory, they had to make Cuba look as much as possible like the USSR. Workers had to be seen as being trampled underfoot inside Cuba and the foreign policy of the Cuban government had to be based on the same kind of narrow, nationalistic interests that guided the Kremlin. To shoehorn Cuban reality into a state capitalist schema required careful selection of facts that help to support the foregone conclusion. While historical materialism is understood by its practitioners as a method that bases itself on a scrupulous examination of social reality, its state capitalist adherents are not above changing the rules when it comes to something like the Cuban revolution which undermines their own, self-privileged “vanguard” status.

Of particular use to the state capitalists have been the books and articles of Sam Farber, a Cuban-American professor whose articles have appeared with some regularity in the International Socialist Organization’s press. The U.S.-based ISO is one of the more important state capitalist groups but has no connection to the equally important British SWP which expelled it from their international movement about a decade ago. I have quite a bit of respect for the ISO, particularly their work in the Green Party in years past, but find their reliance on Sam Farber to be most regrettable.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his academic credentials, Farber is not above making things up to support his judgments against Cuba. For example, in an interview with the Shachtmanite New Politics (a magazine with some affinity for the state capitalists politically, but differing on the exact class character of the former Soviet Union), Farber claimed that Cuba-just like the USSR-put political opponents in mental hospitals. There was only problem with this allegation. It was false as I demonstrated in a rebuttal written in September 2003.

Farber seems to be at it again. In an article titled “Contradictions of Cuba’s foreign policy” that appears in the ISO newspaper and that was originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, Farber makes the case that Cuban foreign policy is self-serving even if most people on the left regard it as revolutionary internationalism of the highest order.

While Farber is on relatively solid footing by criticizing Castro’s support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (of course leaving out the trenchant attack on Soviet bureaucracy that Castro’s speech was laced with), most of the focus is on Cuban involvement in Africa which Farber gives some grudging support to:

In the case of Angola, Cuba’s strategy, along with its alliance with the Soviet empire, allowed Cuba to play a very important role in the defense of that country against Western imperialism and its right-wing UNITA agents. Cuba delivered a heavy military and political blow against South African apartheid, which supported UNITA.

But as is typical of this “One hand giveth, the other taketh away” article, Farber applies a debit to this credit, hence yielding a zero balance in the Cuban account:

However, Cuban aid was not free of cost to the Angolan people. Thus, for example, Cuban troops actively intervened in internal disputes within the Angolan MPLA, like when they insured the victory of the faction led by Agostino Neto against the faction led by Nito Alves.

Now if were an editor at the ISO newspaper, I would have written Farber immediately after he submitted the article raising this question: “Sam, our readers might not know who Neto and Alves were. Could you expand on this since it seems crucial to your argument?” Alas, they never would have bothered since they have a stake in the ideological outcome of Farber’s article. At all costs, it is necessary to paint Cuban troops as bureaucratic meddlers even if it is not exactly clear what they did. Just say the words “actively intervened in internal disputes” and the damage is done. These words summon up images of the Kremlin engineering the ouster of Earl Browder, etc. and help to place the Cuban government beyond the pale of “socialism from below” principles.

Although I would like to dissect Farber’s entire article, space limitations force me to address the Neto-Alves dispute since Farber’s bad faith reference to it will hopefully alert the reader to take the rest of the article with a grain of salt.

You can read about the Neto-Alves conflict in Paul Fauvet’s article “The Rise and Fall of Nito Alves” that appeared in the May-August 1977 issue of “Review of African Political Economy” (contact me for a copy).

Nito Alves can best be described as an aspiring Bernard Coard for those who are familiar with the sad events in Grenada. Nito Alves was a leader of the MPLA who led a guerrilla unit in the Dembo forests that was cut off from the rest of the MPLA during intense fighting with Holden Roberto’s FNLA. Just around the time that the MPLA was poised to take power, Alves returned to Luanda and assumed leadership of the clandestine groups in the local prisons. It was also around the time that Alves began to demonstrate ultraleft and narrow nationalist tendencies that would put him on a collision course with other MPLA leaders.

For example, he developed a theory that equated the Angolan bourgeoisie as those of white and mixed ancestry, regardless of their relationship to the means of production. He proposed that whites should be stripped of their citizenship unless they had actively participated in the liberation movement. Mesticos (mixed ancestry) would have to apply for citizenship as well. This flew in the face of MPLA traditions in which the anti-imperialist struggle was based not on ethnic but on class divisions.

Despite his shaky theories, Alves’s work in the mass movement catapulted him into the post of Interior Minister. Colleagues and friends of Alves began to notice a megalomaniac streak that was only enhanced by his new duties. He was heard to say “history has reserved for me the heavy task of leading the working class to power.” In a brochure of military texts by Lenin edited by Alves, he included a reference to “the immortal Lenin, whose work I intend to continue.”

As Minister of the Interior, Alves wasted no time placing his co-thinkers in powerful positions in the new Angolan state. He was also in charge of the Luanda CPB’s (Popular Bairro Committees) that were modeled on the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Meanwhile, Afonso “MBinda” Van-Dunem, one of Alves’s closest associates, used his position in the Angolan army to promote Alves supporters.

Besides the CPB’s and the army, the nitistas (as the followers of Nito Alves were called) had a base in the Ministry of Internal Trade where corruption was rampant. They began stockholding food as part of a plan to buy the support of the masses. In exchange for their loyalty, they would get something to eat.

Concern about nitista factionalism finally led to a decision at an October 1976 MPLA central committee meeting to abolish the Ministry of the Interior. Alves and his allies, including Van Dunem, remained on the central committee but were given notice that they would no longer be able to promote their faction against the interests of the Angolan revolution as a whole.

This led the nitistas to accelerate their plans to overthrow the MPLA through a coup d’etat. They planned to kill or exile President Agostino Neto and liquidate a number of top MPLA and government officials, all in the name of “preserving the Angolan revolution”. In the spring of 1976, there were ominous signs of the growing nitista threat. His supporters at the Luanda airport prevented white Portuguese technicians from getting off their airplane, even though they had come to Angola to volunteer their services-just like the Tecnica volunteers I placed in Africa 15 years later. Paul Fauvet reports:

A Portuguese engineer in the Public Works Ministry was savagely beaten up, and some Portuguese were even murdered, apparently in attempts to spread panic in what remained of Luanda’s Portuguese community.

Acts of insubordination and near-mutiny arose in the army and the MPLA worried that the country would soon become ungovernable. Finally, in May 1977, the MPLA central committee decided to take action against the nitistas. It took notice of the factionalism that was destabilizing the country and announced its intention to bring it to a halt. Alves’s response bordered on hysteria, accusing Angola’s daily newspaper Jornal de Angola, their Barricada in effect, of playing the same role in Angola that the right-wing press played in Chile before Pinochet’s coup. Nito Alves then demanded that everybody except he and his supporters step down from the Central Committee in order to allow him to form a new one that was truly revolutionary. When President Neto and the majority of the CC declined Alves’s offer, he decided to go ahead with a coup d’etat that he had been planning for some time.

Scheduled for late May 1976, the nitista CPB’s and loyalists in the military would form “Death Commandoes” to liquidate their enemies in the Central Committee and spearhead an assault on state power.

On May 27th the coup was set into motion. nitistas attacked a prison and released a dozen of their supporters as well as hundreds of common criminals. They also seized two radio stations and began broadcasting calls for a mass demonstration that would surround the Presidential Palace. Unfortunately for them, the people of Angola were totally unsympathetic and only 500 people gathered at the Presidential Palace.

On the military front, things were just as bleak for the nitistas. Paul Fauvet reports:

One barracks fell to the nitistas-that of the Ninth Armored Brigade. They also captured a fort on the outskirts of Luanda-but as soon as loyal troops appeared there, the rebel commanders fled and the soldiers laid down their arms, saying that they didn’t know what was going on, but had been told by nitista officers that they were ‘defending the revolution.’

In the next paragraph, Fauvet deals with the Cuban connection. Suffice it to day, it has nothing to do with Farber’s false charge about meddling in Angolan politics:

Confessions of nitista leaders soon after May 17 show that Alves believed that the Cuban forces in Angola would at least stay neutral in the conflict, if not rally to him. He was therefore shocked to discover that the Cubans had immediately put themselves at President Neto’s disposal. When questioning Veloso [a nitista] mid-morning on the situation in the centre of Luanda, Alves asked “And you even saw the Cuban comrades?”. When Veloso confirmed this, Alves remarked “Then I shall have to review my understanding of scientific communism”.

To this I would only add the observation that Sam Farber and the ISO should too review their “understanding of scientific communism”. To fault the Cubans for supporting a revolutionary government that obviously enjoyed the support of the country against a coup d’etat led by a crazed factionalist responsible for the murder of white Angolans whose only offense was being white is incontrovertible evidence that the comrades are simply not interested in the truth. In order to find Cuba guilty in the court of socialist public opinion, they have only indicted themselves.

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