Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2011

Monthly Review and Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

From MRZine:

Millions of Syrians Rally for Syria and Bashar

Millions of Syrians rallied all over Syria, pledging loyalty to the country, in support of Bashar al-Assad, on 29 March 2011.  The dialectic of the regime and the opposition in Syria, it is safe to say, is neither like Tunisia and Egypt, nor like Iraq and Libya.  Instead, it is more like what happened in the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2009-2010.  There are many differences between Syria and Iran, however: E.g., in Syria, the opposition so far is the strongest in Dera’a, a small southwestern city near the border with Jordan, whereas the opposition in Iran was clearly the strongest in northern Tehran.  While most Iranian secularists (except a few Marxists) put their faith in the opposition in Iran, most Syrian secularists, as well as religious minorities such as Christians, appear to fear the opposition — especially the suspected influence, and potential rise, of the Muslim Brotherhood — in Syria.  And then there is a gender factor.  Alone among the Arab regimes that have faced protests since last December, the Syrian Ba’ath regime has put forward women — presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban and Information Ministry spokeswoman Reem Haddad — as its faces and voices on the Arab and international media.  Moreover, the president of Syria has a weapon in the obligatory media war accompanying any protest in a geopolitical hotspot these days, which neither any other Arab regime nor the Islamic Republic of Iran can claim: his undeniably charming wife Asma.  Perhaps not altogether inconsequential in the age of celebrities.

* * * *

NY Times February 20, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist

The Torturers Win


Justice? Surely you jest.

Terrible things were done to Maher Arar, and his extreme suffering was set in motion by the United States government. With the awful facts of his case carefully documented, he tried to sue for damages. But last week a federal judge waved the facts aside and told Mr. Arar, in effect, to get lost.

We’re in a new world now and the all-powerful U.S. government apparently has free rein to ruin innocent lives without even a nod in the direction of due process or fair play. Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen who, according to all evidence, has led an exemplary life, was seized and shackled by U.S. authorities at Kennedy Airport in 2002, and then shipped off to Syria, his native country, where he was held in a dungeon for the better part of a year. He was tormented physically and psychologically, and at times tortured.

The underground cell was tiny, about the size of a grave. According to court papers, “The cell was damp and cold, contained very little light and was infested with rats, which would enter the cell through a small aperture in the ceiling. Cats would urinate on Arar through the aperture, and sanitary facilities were nonexistent.”

Mr. Arar’s captors beat him savagely with an electrical cable. He was allowed to bathe in cold water once a week. He lost 40 pounds while in captivity.

This is a quintessential example of the reprehensible practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the U.S. government kidnaps individuals — presumably terror suspects — and sends them off to regimes that are skilled in the fine art of torture. In terms of vile behavior, rendition stands shoulder to shoulder with contract killing.

If the United States is going to torture people, we might as well do it ourselves. Outsourcing torture does not make it any more acceptable.

Mr. Arar’s case became a world-class embarrassment when even Syria’s torture professionals could elicit no evidence that he was in any way involved in terrorism. After 10 months, he was released. No charges were ever filed against him.

Mr. Arar is a 35-year-old software engineer who lives in Ottawa with his wife and their two young children. He’s never been in any kind of trouble. Commenting on the case in a local newspaper, a former Canadian official dryly observed that “accidents will happen” in the war on terror. The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York filed a lawsuit on Mr. Arar’s behalf, seeking damages from the U.S. government for his ordeal. The government said the case could not even be dealt with because the litigation would involve the revelation of state secrets.

In other words, it wouldn’t matter how hideously or egregiously Mr. Arar had been treated, or how illegally or disgustingly the government had behaved. The case would have to be dropped. Inquiries into this 21st-century Inquisition cannot be tolerated. Its activities must remain secret at all costs.

In a ruling that basically gave the green light to government barbarism, U.S. District Judge David Trager dismissed Mr. Arar’s lawsuit last Thursday. Judge Trager wrote in his opinion that “Arar’s claim that he faced a likelihood of torture in Syria is supported by U.S. State Department reports on Syria’s human rights practices.”

But in dismissing the suit, he said that the foreign policy and national security issues raised by the government were “compelling” and that such matters were the purview of the executive branch and Congress, not the courts.

He also said that “the need for secrecy can hardly be doubted.”

Under that reasoning, of course, the government could literally get away with murder. With its bad actions cloaked in court-sanctioned secrecy, no one would be the wiser.

As an example of the kind of foreign policy problems that might arise if Mr. Arar were given his day in court, Judge Trager wrote:

“One need not have much imagination to contemplate the negative effect on our relations with Canada if discovery were to proceed in this case and were it to turn out that certain high Canadian officials had, despite public denials, acquiesced in Arar’s removal to Syria.”

Oh yes, by all means, we need the federal courts to fully protect the right of public officials to lie to their constituents.

“It’s a shocking decision,” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It’s really saying that an individual who is sent overseas for the purpose of being tortured has no claim in a U.S. court.”

If kidnapping and torturing an innocent man is O.K., what’s not O.K.?

March 30, 2011

The Destiny of Lesser Animals; Meek’s Cutoff

Filed under: Africa,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Last night, after a few minutes into “The Destiny of Lesser Animals”, a movie showing at the always bountiful New Directors/New Films Festival at Lincoln Center on Friday and Saturday night, I had a sense of déjà vu. This movie, written by and starring a Ghanaian and directed by an American, tells the story of a cop named Boniface Koomsin (Yao B. Nunoo, the screenwriter) whose false passport is stolen by a motorcyclist in the opening moments of the film. Needing access to the police department’s database in order to find out the identity of the thief whose license number he wrote down, he claims that his gun has been stolen—something that routinely gets high priority in the Ghana police department and those everywhere else in the world.

That rang a bell. Wasn’t that the plot of Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog with a very young Toshiro Mifune playing a cop whose revolver had been stolen? I was also struck by the director’s obviously affectionate view of the Accra bazaar with its street vendors hawking their wares: “I have your Adidas here!” There is a scene like this in “Stray Dog” that gives the audience a bird’s eye view of a shabby but vibrant Japan in the immediate postwar period, a society that faced the same kinds of ills that post-colonial societies in Africa are now facing.

My suspicions were confirmed after doing some research on the net after this fascinating film ended. The press notes state:

[Director Deron] Albright and Nunoo first met in late 2004, when Albright was casting his short, “The Legend of Black Tom.” The two found themselves enjoying their work together enough to begin looking for opportunities to collaborate in the future. Two years later, Nunoo was developing a ‘policier’ script set in Philadelphia. But when Albright returned from screening “Black Tom” at FESPACO, and pitched to Nunoo the idea of shooting in West Africa, the script and the project sprang to life. Soon after, the two formed Bright Noon Pictures, and set forth to realize their dream of making the film in Ghana. But not just any film. First, it had to be a film for people who loved films. Nunoo’s inspiration for the script was Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (Nora inu), and for Albright, the vision was to wrap the genre pleasures of the policier with the humanity of Neorealism and the best of the West African cinematic tradition.

Well, “a film for people who love films” certainly describes me.

Even more so than Kurosawa’s classic, “The Destiny of Lesser Animals” delves into the motivations of its main character. The cop in “Stray Dog” is pent-up, visceral, and impulsive—just the sort of character that Toshiro Mifune was born to play. By contrast, Boniface Koomsin is reflective to the point of indecision, trying to decide in Hamlet fashion whether to be or not to be—a Ghanaian. The whole point of the fake passport was to get him to America, where he dreams of “making it” in a country that is not burdened by petty crime, corruption, greed, and all the other problems that drive people into emigration, legal or illegal.

This leads to some poignant scenes involving Boniface and a more experienced and senior cop named Oscar Darko (Fred Amugi) who becomes a father figure to him, mirroring the relationship between Mifune and Sato (Takashi Shimura), the senior detective who counsels him.

Their discussions revolve around Boniface’s desire to emigrate, an act that Oscar considers disloyal to the country. Oscar remains committed to Nkrumah’s vision of the country even though corruption and poor governance have taken their toll.

“The Destiny of Lesser Animals” succeeds much more as a human drama rather than an action-driven policier. One hopes that after the two-night run at Lincoln Center, it will receive a wider distribution. With the death of Ousmane Sembene, Africa has been deprived of one of its leading cinematic geniuses. The team that made “The Destiny of Lesser Animals” is made up of younger talents who show great promise. Their efforts should be rewarded by acceptance among the people described in the film notes as those “who love film”.

When I learned that Kelly Reichardt had made a Western about a wagon train in Oregon in 1845 relying on the help of an Indian, I had high expectations. Her earlier films, also set in Oregon, were penetrating character studies about contemporary life. “Old Joy” was about two men bonding in a hot tub in a forest retreat with homoerotic overtones, but more generally about the regrets of unfulfilled dreams. “Wendy and Lucy was about the struggle of a homeless woman to keep hold of the thing that she loved above all, her pet dog.

Unfortunately, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a complete disaster, a pretentious, boring, and insufferably “arty” work that gives independent film a bad name. I suppose that when I learned beforehand that Paul Dano was part of the cast, I should have avoided it. For my money, Dano is the worst actor in Hollywood since William Shatner who at least had the saving grace of not taking himself too seriously. Dano, like Reichardt, thinks he is involved with making a Big Statement. It is enough to drive one to spend a full day watching Adam Sandler movies.

The Meek referred to in the title is Stephen Meek, a character in a ridiculous looking buckskin fringe outfit who has been asked to lead a small wagon train into Oregon along the famous Oregon Trail. Unlike Daniel Boone or any other legendary mountain man, Meek could not find his way out of Grand Central Station even if you drew a path in red paint along the floor for him.

The net result is that the pioneers are stuck on a vast and arid plain that shows no signs of yielding into a green and fertile destination for homesteading. At the beginning of the film, Paul Dano is shown carving the word “Lost” into a board just so you get the idea.

For around 1/3 of the movie, there is absolutely nothing going on except the group of 7 settlers and Meek plowing ahead in futility. Reichardt has put a lot of effort into recreating how such people really lived and one of the more dramatic moments involves the women making breakfast. They grind coffee by hand, for example. I don’t know. If this is your kind of thing, I suggest a visit to one of those museum villages where you can see blacksmiths working on horseshoes, etc. In any case, Reichardt would have been better served if she had spent more effort on character and plot development than authenticity.

All in all, the movie reminds me more of Gus Van Sant’s monumentally boring “Gerry” that starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as two guys, both named Gerry, that get lost in the desert. Fifteen minutes of this movie is enough to drive one to drink a bottle of absinthe.

The worst part of “Meek’s Cutoff” is the Indian character that is first seen lurking near the camp. After Meek pursues him and brings him back to camp bound by rope, a debate takes place whether to kill him on the spot or use him as a guide to finding water and a way out of the wasteland, sort of like Lewis and Clark using the Blackfoot woman Sacagawea.

The film notes make a huge to-do about the efforts to recreate the past. Production Designer David Doernberg stated:

We went to the Oregon Historical Society, which was a great resource. There were exhibits and pictures of the rugged travelers and Meek himself. But the most interesting part of my research was contacting the individuals out there that are devoted to preserving our past. For a scene where Emily Tetherow grinds her morning coffee I needed the right grinder.

The one thing that the production company did not research is how American Indians lived. The Indian they capture is described as being a lone wanderer. If you have spent more than an hour reading about American Indians, you will understand that Indians always did things together. The idea that a member of a tribe would go unaccounted for like this is not just improbable, it is an insult to both the audience’s intelligence and a sign of Reichardt’s indifference to the Other she so piously invokes.

The press notes see the film as an allegory of today’s conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan:

The clash of cultures in the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is felt in the friction between the emigrents [sic], Meek and the Indian. The arguments over the necessity of violence to obtain information from a prisoner, the lingering doubts over an elected leader, and the basic question of whether to “stay the course” are topics in the film that have also been prevalent in the national conversation of the past decade.

My suggestion to Reichardt is the next time she wants to make a movie that has such ambitions she should hire a consultant that actually knows something about American history. As it turns out, she is a film professor at Bard College. I can’t say I am completely surprised by her fecklessness. I imagine that if she really had something important to say about colonialism and war, she probably wouldn’t be teaching there.

March 29, 2011

Secrets of the Tribe

Filed under: Film,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

As someone with a more than a passing interest in the Napoleon Chagnon/Yanomami controversy, I found the HBO documentary “Secrets of the Tribe” totally riveting. For those who are not familiar with the ideological warfare that followed in the trail of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, the film is a terrific introduction. It interviews all the major figures in the debate, as well as the Yanomami people who encountered them for better or—mostly—for worse.

Although I have been reading about these characters for years, this was my first opportunity to see them defend themselves. Their stories beggar the imagination and embody the cliché that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Here are the cast of characters:

Napoleon Chagnon: Chagnon developed the thesis of the Yanomami as the “fierce people”. He claimed that 40 percent of the men he interviewed confessed that they had killed at least one man from another tribe. He tried to explain the warfare in terms of sociobiology. The dominant males were those who were most likely to propagate their genes.

Kenneth Good: Originally an assistant to Chagnon, he became an early adversary. Charged with the responsibility of evaluating food intake in Yanomami territory, a possible generator of conflict in line with Marvin Harris’s materialist anthropology, he found himself growing skeptical of Chagnon’s data. Chagnon insisted that the Yanomami had plenty of food to eat and only fought for sexual reasons. As proof, he cited a village that was well-fed in a 1979 Science article. When Good discovered that the village was not in the forest but attached to a missionary complex that included a general store, Science refused to publish it. Good became as controversial a figure as Chagnon eventually after he married a 13 year old Yanomami girl.

Jacques Lizot: Lizot was a protégé of Claude Levi-Strauss who, like Good, became estranged from Chagnon after initially working closely with him. Unlike Chagnon and Good, he refused to be interviewed. A major scandal erupted after it was learned that Lizot was a homosexual pedophile who kept a retinue of Yanomami boys attending to his sexual needs in exchange for gifts of various sorts. A number of them are interviewed.

Patrick Tierney: Tierney was not an anthropologist but an investigative journalist who spent years pursuing the facts on Chagnon. While the film makes a scrupulous attempt not to favor any of the principals, it effectively supports the case made against Chagnon in Tierney’s book.

In addition to these four principals, there are a host of other anthropologists and native people who offer their opinions. Of the greatest interest to me was Brian Ferguson, a Rutgers professor who spent far less time in the field than Chagnon, Good or Lizot but whose theoretical contribution is enormous. As author of “Yanamami Warfare: A Political History”, Ferguson puts the question of sociobiology in the foreground. As good as Tierney is on the investigative journalism front, he really lacks the theoretical depth of Ferguson. I recommend a short article by Ferguson titled “A Reputation for War” as a good introduction to his views:

In the first decade of this century, for example, the frenzied rubber-tapping boom in Amazonia led to a surge in Western trade goods passing along the Uraricoera and other rivers near Brazilian Yanomami territory. In a series of raids, ambushes, and at least one pitched battle, some local Yanomami groups carved out a niche in the trade system. They then gave up raiding, but soon were pressed from behind by the “wild” Yanomami in the mountains.

For some Yanomami, including those living around the mission posts of the upper Orinoco River, contact with resident outsiders has led to a much more sedentary way of life. Over time, hunting depleted local game supplies and was replaced by fishing, more intensive cultivation, and consumption of mission foods. Having lost their mobile way of life, these groups are unable to follow the traditional option of moving away when frictions arise. And with little hunting, they lose the custom of sharing meat, which as Kenneth Good has observed, is a source of solidarity. Worst of all, their exposure to outsiders brings them new diseases, with epidemics tearing great holes in the social fabric. For some Yanomami, such as those encountered by Chagnon, long and strong contact with the outside world created so much disruption that, for a time, violence became almost normal in interpersonal relations.

The Yanomami case shows the extraordinary reach and transforming effects a centrally governed society, or state, may have, extending way beyond its last outpost. The impact of disease, trade goods, migrations, and political restructurings can spread far in advance of face-to-face contact, and when the state’s advance agents do arrive, they commonly bring even more destruction with them. Because they may possess firearms or dispense coveted trade goods, even contemporary missionaries and anthropologists can become important players in these conflicts and the focus of violent competition.

Anybody who has studied North American indigenous peoples can testify to the accuracy of this. As a rule of thumb, it is very difficult to isolate the Indian from the web of capitalist social relations that pervaded the Western Hemisphere from the moment that Columbus arrived.

For those who have a subscription to HBO, the film can be downloaded at any time like any of their other shows. I discovered this feature not long after I upgraded to my new HDTV but have a feeling it was always available.

For those who do not have HBO, the film can be downloaded as a bit torrent. Please contact me if you need some help in getting set up for bit torrent. It is really quite simple and a tremendous source of valuable material, especially films that cannot be rented from Netflix.

Finally, my articles on the Yanomami can be accessed by clicking https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/category/yanomami/.

March 28, 2011

Left Forum 2011 — part two

Filed under: Left Forum,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

This article contains a video of all the presentations made at “Venezuela and the Chavez Government: Advances and Shortcomings” on Sunday morning, plus my commentary.

Here’s the panel abstract:

Venezuela is going through a crucial period right now because it is emerging from a two-year recession and President Chavez and his allies have won only narrow electoral victories since the loss of a 2007 constitutional reform referendum. In addition, after 12 years in power there is a certain erosion of enthusiasm among rank and file Chavistas. Chavez is up for reelection in 2012, which will be one of his most critical contests yet. The speakers on this panel will explore what is currently going on in Venezuela, in terms of the advances and the shortcomings of the Chavez government and they will thereby try to make sense of where Venezuela has been and where it is heading.

The speakers included:

  • Steve Ellner—Universidad del Oriente, Venezuela
  • Dario Azzellini—Johannes Kepler Universität, Austria
  • Isabel Delgado—Ministry of Basic Industries and Mines, Venezuela
  • Mark Weisbrot—Center for Economic and Policy Research
  • T.M. Scruggs – University of Iowa / Independent Scholar

I found Ellner’s talk the most interesting since it claimed that Venezuela illustrated Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution to some extent. It differed, however, because Chavez believes in compromise and Trotsky didn’t. This amounted to a swipe against the trade union activists who have been interviewed in the ISO and British SWP press. In my view, they have made some important critiques from the left but are in no position to supersede Chavez. This is a function of “vanguardist” habits that prevent them from a reaching a critical mass.

I should add that a panel discussion took place last year along the same lines, as I reported:

12pm-1:50pm: Lessons from Venezuela: Achievements and Failures

This featured three very well-known commentators—Steve Ellner, Greg Wilpert and Eva Gollinger—as well as two that were new to me: Carlos Martinez, the author of “Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots”, and Dario Azzellini, the co-director of a documentary “Venezuela from Below”.

All the talks were a mixture of interesting observations about the current situation in Venezuela with what I am afraid were muddled theories about “21st century socialism” which amounts to statements that the revolution is impossible to categorize, but different from statist, 20th century models, and filled with contradictions, etc. There was a certain amount of defensiveness from Steve Ellner who stated that the revolution would never satisfy “the Trotskyists”, both inside the country and out.

Azzellini went furthest out on a limb by trying to describe Venezuela as an example of “council communism” since so many councils were being formed with the encouragement of the government. Apparently, these councils would eventually change from quantity to quality and result in a full-fledged socialist state or something like that. He said that Venezuela was very much like the Paris Commune, perhaps in a bid to assuage the “Trotskyists” in the audience who needed reassurance that the experiment in Venezuela was in conformity with the Marxist classics.

In the Q&A, feeling a bit testy from all the foggy rhetoric, I said that it might make sense to stop worrying about whether Venezuela conformed to some classical definition of socialism and perhaps be satisfied with the analysis put forward by Marxmail’s Nestor Gorojovsky, namely that Chavez was a radical nationalist not much different from Peron or a dozen other anti-imperialist heads of state. It is much better to leave it like that rather than to offer up definitions utterly lacking in theoretical rigor. I don’t think that the panelists were happy with my intervention, even though it was offered by somebody totally in sympathy with Hugo Chavez’s presidency.

This year I had another comment that reflected my mixed feelings about “21st Century Socialism” (it had nothing to do with Hugo Chavez’s ties to Qaddafi). I stated that all socialist revolutions of the 20th century grew out of armed struggles (including the October 1917 revolution, which involved winning the army over) against despotic rule. Once the old state with its repressive apparatus was dismantled, a “workers state” would nationalize the means of production and institute large-scale planning. But the new model taking shape in Latin America has operated on a totally different basis. Leftist presidents have been elected but have carried out reforms, often quite radical, that have an anti-capitalist dynamic. The failure of these governments to complete this new type of revolution suggests that it might not be possible, especially with the collapse of the USSR that provided economic and military aid in the past.

Time will tell, I am sure.

March 27, 2011

Obama predicts his future

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Whatever else you want to say about “Dreams for My Father”, it was skillfully written. I wondered after reading it whether many of the campaign volunteers decided to sign up if for no other reason that the author was more intelligent than the average politician. Thematically, it is related to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” although I doubt that Obama has ever acknowledged the influence of this novel that is a combination of Black consciousness and existential outsider literature.

If “Dreams for My Father” was ghost-written by Bill Ayers, one of the less outrageous claims of the ultraright, then one might conclude that “Audacity of Hope” was ghost-written by a committee consisting of David Broder, Thomas Friedman, and Juan Williams. It is a platitude-sodden mess that has none of the piquancy of the first book—understandable since it was a typical meet-the-candidate type venture. Since I am toying with the idea of writing a comic book on Obama, this research is a necessary evil.

There is one passage that does have the ring of truth, however. In it Obama practically predicts the politician he would become:

Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means—law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social ill that could not be cured by a high SAT score. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital. Most were adamantly prochoice and antigun and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment.

And although my own worldview and theirs corresponded in many ways—I had gone to the same schools, after all, had read the same books, and worried about my kids in many of the same ways—I found myself avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations. On core issues I was candid; I had no problem telling well-heeled supporters that the tax cuts they’d received from George Bush should be reversed. Whenever I could, I would try to share with them some of the perspectives I was hearing from other portions of the electorate: the legitimate role of faith in politics, say, or the deep cultural meaning of guns in rural parts of the state.

Still, I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve. And in one fashion or another, I suspect this is true for every senator: The longer you are a senator, the narrower the scope of your interactions. You may fight it, with town hall meetings and listening tours and stops by the old neighborhood. But your schedule dictates that you move in a different orbit from most of the people you represent.

And perhaps as the next race approaches, a voice within tells you that you don’t want to have to go through all the misery of raising all that money in small increments all over again. You realize that you no longer have the cachet you did as the upstart, the fresh face; you haven’t changed Washington, and you’ve made a lot of people unhappy with difficult votes. The path of least resistance—of fund-raisers organized by the special interests, the corporate PACs, and the top lobbying shops—starts to look awfully tempting, and if the opinions of these insiders don’t quite jibe with those you once held, you learn to rationalize the changes as a matter of realism, of compromise, of learning the ropes. The problems of ordinary people, the voices of the Rust Belt town or the dwindling heartland, become a distant echo rather than a palpable reality, abstractions to be managed rather than battles to be fought.

Erstwhile strange bedfellows

Filed under: Iraq,Libya — louisproyect @ 1:05 pm

March 26, 2011

Left Forum 2011 — part one

Filed under: Left Forum,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Over the next few days I will be blogging about the 2011 Left Forum in New York, including full and in one case nearly full video recordings of the presentations. I will be starting off with talks by Lars Lih and Paul Le Blanc today but will now include some prefatory remarks on the event.

I have been going to these things for a number of years now, starting around the time I dropped out of the SWP. They gave me a chance to learn about ideas that were never taken up in the SWP, although this in itself is not necessarily a recommendation.

If you go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left.htm, you will find reports on past events.

Left Forum 2005

Left Forum 2006

Left Forum 2008

Left Forum 2009 (Saturday)

Left Forum 2009 (Sunday)

Left Forum 2010 (Saturday)

Left Forum 2010 (Sunday)

In 2005, the Left Forum had its premier. It grew out of a split in the Socialist Scholars Conference leadership over Yugoslavia, with Bogdan Denitch deciding that conference organizer Eric Canepa was soft on Milosevic. You can read a skewed account of the split on the website of the N.Y. Sun, an arch-reactionary newspaper that went out of business some time back. Here’s a snippet:

American socialists, in Mr. Denitch’s view, can learn something from President da Silva of Brazil, who “was elected by the largest electorate in Latin America,” but not from President Castro of Cuba, who “has never faced an election.”

Perhaps because people who do not take their marching orders from Denitch now control the Left Forum, it has gone from strength to strength. While the group around Denitch were not particularly associated with post-modernist trends in the academy, you will now find very few panel discussions of the sort that smack of Modern Language Association conferences with their scrutiny of Madonna videos in the 1980s and Lady Gaga today as expressive of “transgressive” politics.

In fact, the discussions were very much like the ones that take place on Marxmail although I suspect that Left Forum organizers might not consider that a compliment. There were extremely relevant discussions of Islamophobia, the labor movement, and the Black struggle drawing upon as many activists (like our own Jon Flanders) as academics.

The other thing that struck me was the broad participation of young people. This was the first conference I attended where there were as many people under 30 as there were over 60. This was truly inspiring to me.

Lars and Paul spoke at a workshop on “Lenin’s Marxism” organized by the Platypus group. As many of you know, I regard the Platypus group as American Eustonites (https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/q-what-is-a-platypus-a-an-american-eustonite/) so it will not surprise you that I did not record Chris Cutrone’s talk on “Lenin’s Liberalism”. Despite the obvious provocative character of the title, the talk was enough to put me into a coma.

I came to the session a bit late so I missed the start of Lars’s talk, which dealt with Lenin’s debates with Bukharin. Perhaps it will show up on the net at some point. If so, I will send along a link. Mostly, Lars made the same points he has made before, namely that Lenin was trying to build a party in Russia that was modeled on Kautsky’s in Germany.

Paul’s response to Lars covered the same points he made in the Historical Materialism symposium on Lars’s book on Lenin’s “What is to be Done” and accepts the idea that Lenin started out as a Kautskyist but turned into the architect of a “party of a new type” after 1914,

As I have stated on other occasions, I find the debate between Lars, Paul and the British SWP to be unfortunately disengaged with what I regard the most important question, namely the tendency of parties built on the “Leninist” model to turn into sects and cults.

When I raised the question of “democratic centralism” during the discussion period, Lars interpreted it as falling within the rubric of Soviet-style dictatorship when my real interest was in the failure of groups like the SWP (either American or British) to ever reach the critical mass necessary to become a bureaucratic state. Frankly, I would be willing to put up with bureaucratic distortions if Alex Callicos ever figured out a way to toss the David Camerons and Tony Blairs of the world into the ashbin of history.

March 25, 2011

Barry Sheppard: Libya, imperialism, and ALBA

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

(Barry Sheppard was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party from the early 1960s until 1998.)

Libya, imperialism, and ALBA

By Barry Sheppard

I am posting this on different lists which have a small amount of overlap. Views on the U.S. military attack on Libya on both lists express a similar range. While I will differ with some of those views, I do not want to get into personal polemics, and will not mention names.

The struggle in Libya cannot be analyzed except in the context of world and especially U.S. imperialism, as I am sure all will agree. But its also cannot be analyzed in terms of Libya itself in conjunction with the role of imperialism there.

What is the context in which Libya must be placed? Or to put the question another way, could the civil war in Libya and the U.S. military assault have happened four months ago? Of course not. Neither were even remote possibilities in anyone’s mind four months ago.

The context is the great Arab uprising which has taken the world and all of us by surprise. The fundamental thrust of this uprising of millions has unfolded from country to country against military dictators and monarchies. The immediate demands everywhere revolve around democracy and an end to arbitrary police rule with its imprisonment, torture and murder. Every one of the Arab countries whose rulers the rebellion is directed against were backed by imperialism, with the partial exception of Syria. In the case of Syria, however, the regime’s relations with imperialism have been cozy enough that it accepted prisoners under “special rendition,” and dutifully tortured them. So even Syria is part of the special relations these countries have with imperialism.

Libya under Gaddafy beginning in the 1990s became part and parcel of this system of imperialist domination. Whatever his anti-imperialism amounted to in his past is just that – the past. He made his deals with European and U.S. imperialism at first through oil and gas, and then sealed the arrangement in 2004 with political cement.

The unfolding of the Arab revolution is thus objectively and increasingly subjectively anti-imperialist. Washington’s system of domination in North Africa and the Mideast has been shaken. Israel’s role in this system has likewise been weakened. The Israeli ruling class feels itself becoming isolated by the rebellion, and its spokespeople are squealing in alarm. Israel is reacting by renewing attacks on Gaza and further settlements in the West Bank, driving to consolidate its rule from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

Revolutionary socialists must give unconditional support to the Arab uprising. Its immediate goals in all these countries can be summed up as (bourgeois) democracy, and are one hundred percent progressive. Its domestic enemies are for the most part agents of imperialism, and where not directly so, are complicit with it. We support them for this reason also.

By “unconditional” support I mean support not conditioned by our evaluation of the leaders of the rebellions or whether or not we have political agreement with them. That goes for Libya, too. I disagree with comrades who seem to condition their support of the Libyan rebels on more knowledge of what their program is. We must be for the victory of the rebellion in Libya, period.

In all of these rebellions, those fighting to overthrow the dictatorial regimes include different classes and sections of classes. The self-immolation of a Tunisian young man which was the spark for the conflagration reflected the situation of a whole layer of the uprisings – educated young people unable to find employment in the conditions of imperialist exploitation and crony capitalism in the context of the most severe economic crisis of capitalism since the Second World War. This layer is part of the working class. Impoverished peasants driven off their land by imperialist penetration and capitalist development, forced into the cities to look for casual work, are another layer. Peasants remaining on the land suffering increasing hardship are another.

Workers who have been denied their rights to organize to fight for better wages and conditions are another. Artists and intellectuals chaffing under ideological control have joined. Other sectors have come over to the rebellion, including parts of the bourgeoisie who resent crony capitalism and crass corruption that restricts their own development. Parts of the state apparatuses and militaries of the old regimes are jumping ship.

Economic exploitation and massive poverty are clearly motivating forces behind the rebellions. These affect the great majority of the rebellious masses. Their demands will increasingly come to the fore, to the extent that bourgeois democracy is won on the ground. We can expect that to the extent that the rebellions are successful, there will be a growing differentiation between the classes and sections of the classes, which will be expressed in different political formations. Probably we will see Islamist parties. Petty bourgeois revolutionary parties. Parties reflecting the interests of the military and the old regime. Bourgeois democratic parties. And, we can hope, workers’ parties. The interests of the different classes will probably find incomplete and muddled expressions at first.

The degree of capitalist development is different in each of these countries, and has been distorted by imperialism. Thus the objective strengths of the different classes are different from country to country. In Egypt the employed working class has been fighting for some time now, organizing under the dictatorship. It seems to have played a more decisive role there than elsewhere. We should learn more about the class structure in each country. Egypt may come to the fore as the leader because of the weight of its workers.

As this political differentiation develops, we will be able to see which parties and programs we support or partially support in the class struggle. We will also see which political forces we oppose. But right now to demand programmatic clarity of the rebellions to determine our degree of support to them is premature (the conditions have not yet matured) and is in fact reactionary as it plays into the hands of the dictatorships and monarchies.

The battle has been joined between the millions of the Arab masses versus the current regimes. The outcome of this battle, whether victorious everywhere, in most of these countries, in some, or defeated outright will determine whether or not, or to what extent, the struggle will enter a higher phase. The stakes are high, and we should throw our efforts into winning this battle which has already been joined in bloody conflict as our immediate task. Bourgeois democracy has not yet been consolidated anywhere, and that is the first objective.

Part of this immediate task is to oppose imperialism, which is seeking to re-impose as much control as it can in the face of the uprising. Its methods of doing so include the spectrum of supporting repression of the masses on over to trying to coopt them. More exactly, imperialism’s tactics are a combination of both and are being used simultaneously.

In this regard it is useful to go back a few months to the beginning of the uprising. When it began in Tunisia, European and U.S. imperialisms were alarmed, and sought to preserve the President and his regime. France, with close ties to the regime, paid a big political price as the uprising grew.

When it spread to Egypt, a key country for the U.S., the reaction was steadfast support of Mubarak. Secretary of State Clinton lauded the “stability” of his regime. As the rebellion grew, Mubarak attempted extreme violence to quell it, attacking with his political police, a huge apparatus. Hundreds were killed. Washington watched and waited, hoping this would succeed. When it did not, Obama sent his personal envoy to meet with Mubarak, who returned and said on all the TV networks that the U.S. must back Mubarak at all costs. Obama held steadfast, rejecting calls for Mubarak’s ouster. Encouraged, Mubarak went on TV to state he would stay in power, although he wouldn’t run again in the rigged elections. The masses responded with deep anger, and the next day threatened wider attacks on symbols of the regime. Defense Secretary Gates had been in close touch throughout with the regime’s top generals, who that day forced Mubarak out and set up themselves as an interim government with the full backing of the U.S.

Why didn’t the Egyptian generals resort to using the army to crush the masses? Of course, they would have paid a big political price to do so, as would have Washington. But I suspect that an important reason was that the Egyptian army is a conscript army, and the U.S. and Egyptian generals feared it would split if it were used to attack the people. We had already seen many reports of fraternization between the conscript soldiers and the demonstrators. The young soldiers had many ties to the population from which they came, and had always thought they would go back to civilian life among the people.

Throughout the Egyptian events the White House emphasized, even as it began to give lip service to democracy, that the “transition” must be “orderly” and be guided from the top. This remains Washington’s position regarding Egypt today. Indeed, it is Washington’s position everywhere the rebellion is moving forward.

In Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the Emirates the U.S. continues to give full backing to the monarchies, including their use of repression. Of course it backs repression by its puppet regime in Iraq against mass demonstrations there, which are in fact against the U.S. occupation.

The situation in Libya is different than Egypt. Gaddafy has repressive forces loyal to him outside the army, which he has deliberately kept weak over his years of rule. He was able to muster loyal forces to attack the revolution, which had made important initial gains. He was able to crush the demonstrations first in Tripoli, and then to move against cities to the east which had fallen to the rebels. Washington and Europe stood by and watched as Gaddafy was able to use his overwhelming superiority in fire-power to close in on the seat of the uprising, Benghazi. It was only then that the U.S. and the European powers decided to attack.

All the imperialist powers of the West have been scrambling to try to retain as much control of the region as they can, and have internal debates about what tactics to use. This can explain part of the delay in opening the war against Libya. But we should also note the objective result of Gaddafy’s counter-revolutionary offensive — the infliction of great damage on the uprising, which is in imperialism’s interests.

Gaddafy’s attack on the rebellion emboldened others to follow suit. The regimes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain began massive crackdowns, with tacit support from the U.S. In Bahrain Defense Secretary Gates met with the king’s men and a few days later forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invaded to back up a vicious attack on the people, and the White House pointedly refused to condemn either the invasion or the crackdown.

By choosing the moment before Benghazi’s fall to attack, imperialism was able to cloak its military assault with a “humanitarian” veneer. It was compelled to go beyond the “no-fly zone” rhetoric and destroy Gaddafy’s considerable armor and artillery surrounding Benghazi. If it had not done so, it would have lost all political cover for its assault. This was met with considerable relief by the rebels, of course, who had faced outright defeat. We can hope they will be able to utilize this breathing space to obtain arms. They have the right to do so from whatever source, including from the imperialists, to strengthen their hand against the regime but also in the coming struggle in which imperialism will try to impose its will as much as it can on Libya as part of its overall strategy in the region.

Imperialist war against Libya has begun. War sets in motion forces that no side foresees. Right now the U.S. commanders are adamant that they are not backing a renewed offensive by the rebels, and nor will they provide air cover for such an offensive. But this may change if the vagaries of war go in that direction, even if that appears unlikely at present. Even then, imperialism will utilize such support to force its will on the rebellion as much as it can.

As the imperialist bombardment of Gaddafy’s ground forces around Benghazi demonstrated, “no-fly” will not be sufficient to defeat the dictator militarily. His forces continue to fight on in other cities without his air force. Even aerial bombing and massive bombardment might not be sufficient. Military experience demonstrates that boots on the ground will probably be necessary. (Let’s dispense with the clap-trap about “defending civilians.” If massive bombing and bombardment of cities under Gaddafy’s control commences, there will be massive civilian casualties – of course these will be swept under the rug as “collateral damage.”)

It is unrealistic to assume that the present situation will continue for long. That is, that the Libyan air force will be kept grounded and the regime will continue to win back territory with the exception of Benghazi. The view of some that the imperialist attack can be so contained, and that at least Benghazi has been spared, is naïve, however well intentioned.

Once war has been launched, imperialism is forced to see it through, whatever the costs, or face greater setbacks, as we saw in Vietnam.

We could speculate on possible outcomes of the war. The country could be divided. The imperialists may conquer the whole country. Gaddafy could be killed or driven out by his own people and then imperialism will force a “negotiated” settlement toward an “orderly transition” whereby the imperialists retain as much influence as they can. This later possibility seems to be the option Clinton likes today, but that could change before I send this out.

Whatever the outcome, imperialist aims are to contain the Arab rebellion including in Libya within imperialist control as far as this is possible. We must be opposed to the imperialist war without any qualifications. It is aimed at weakening the Arab revolt.

What about the position taken by Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) countries? It should be noted that in general, except in the case of Libya, they have taken the side of the Arab masses. But they have done so in a lukewarm, not very enthusiastic, way. They should have been in the forefront of world opinion in vocal support of the uprising against the imperialist puppet and imperialist-complicit regimes. As a pole of anti-imperialism in Latin America it was in their interests to do so. This failure of emphasis is serious and makes it more difficult for international anti-imperialist forces to defend them.

Concerning Libya, the ALBA countries have fared worse. They have warned against the danger of the imperialist war against Libya, and to this extent we are on the same side. But on the question of the Libyan rebellion and Gaddafy we are not on the same side. Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has come out openly in defense of Gaddafy’s regime. This counter-revolutionary stance undercuts his presidency in Nicaragua and opens him and Nicaragua to imperialist charges (false to be sure) that his regime is like Gaddafy’s.

Fidel Castro issued a statement shortly before the imperialist war started that contained a thoughtful review of Gaddafy’s career from his leading the overthrow of the imperialist-imposed king (like Nassar did in Egypt), initial steps taken to improve the lot of the Libyan people, his anti-communism, on up to his making peace with imperialism. One could add to this review, but Castro’s error concerns his position on the present rebellion. Castro deplored the killing of innocents and the violence, but left the impression that “both sides” were to blame in blatant contradiction to the facts. He called for “peace” and “negotiations” between the revolution and Gaddafy’s regime. The rebels, if defeated, may be forced into such negotiations as part of their surrender, but that is a different story, one imperialism may adopt. Hugo Chavez had basically the same line. This position boils down to telling the rebels to give up, and maintain the current regime with some reforms. By doing so, Castro and Chavez have placed themselves against the sentiments of the Arab masses, undercut any positive role they might have played in helping push forward the interests of the workers and exploited as the class struggle deepens in the Arab countries, and made it easier for imperialism to attack them and the process of the Bolivarian revolution. Already, CNN has posted pictures of Chavez hugging Gaddafy.

I leave aside Bolivia, Ecuador and the Caribbean countries in ALBA, because I haven’t seen what their positions are.

In my opinion, the error of Ortega and to a lesser extent Castro and Chavez lies in their not being able to make a distinction between state to state relations and political support. Libya has made generous trade and other economic relations with the ALBA countries. The ALBA countries were correct to make such agreements, which strengthened them against imperialist domination. But translating these positive economic relations into political support or quasi-political support against a people’s revolution is wrong and self-defeating.

It is obvious that I completely disagree with those on these lists who support Ortega, Castro or Chavez on this question. I also disagree with those who have given partial credence to these erroneous positions, and equivocate to one degree or another on support to the Libyan rebellion as a result.

One point that Chavez raises is that the U.S. or European imperialists want to “steal” Libya’s oil. This confusion is reflected in statements by others who oppose the imperialist invasion while supporting the rebellion. Steal the oil from whom? British Petroleum, Exxon-Mobile, the Italian oil and gas cartel and similar outfits who Gaddafy has made solid agreements with? Who have been pumping Libyan oil and gas for over a decade? Gaddafy even has a gas pipeline going directly under the Mediterranean to Italy. To be sure, they have been giving the Gaddafy family and other crony capitalists tens of billions as their cut, but they have been quite happy with the arrangement. They are not invading to de-nationalize Libyan oil by overthrowing Gaddafy. He has proven to them that he is willing to accept them as partners in any new oil or gas fields.   There is a danger to imperialist interests if the rebellion wins. The triumphant masses may want to do what Venezuela did, renegotiate the terms with the imperialists and use the oil and gas proceeds to better themselves, something capitalists everywhere hate as they do all social expenditures not in their direct interests.

These errors of the ALBA countries must not let us lower our guard in defending them against imperialism.

In defense of the Great Arab Uprising!

No to all forms of imperialist intervention!

Fight the imperialist war!


Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

In many ways, the title of the film “Illegal” that opens today at the Cinema Village in New York should be “Nobody is illegal” since this is about as hard-hitting and politically engaged as any movie ever made on the plight of undocumented workers. While Americans might assume that the protagonists are Latinos, who bear the brunt of nativist repression, the film takes place in Belgium and tells the story of Tania, a teacher from Byelorussia who now works cleaning offices at night.

In the opening moments, we see Tania sitting on a sofa drinking vodka straight from a bottle. It turns out that she is not dissolute, only seeking to dull the pain that awaits her. Once she is sufficiently dosed, she takes a steam iron and proceeds to apply the iron against her fingertips in an attempt to conceal her identity. From this moment onwards, we understand that being deported is a fate worse than hell. The fact that “Illegal” does not spell out what makes her so afraid does not diminish it. All we need to know is that for some people becoming an undocumented worker in another country is a lesser evil, and one necessary to assume.

Tania has a young son named Ivan who she dotes on. She has decorated their modest apartment with banners and tinsel, although he complains that he would rather celebrate with his friends. The next day, Tania and Ivan are confronted outside their building by a couple of cops who demand to see her papers. When she can only show them a health service id, they insist that she bring them back to her apartment where the papers (false, as it turns out) can be found. They are interested in finding out where she got the documents from and will pressure her to name the supplier, a thuggish Russian named Mr. Novak who controls her and her son through his power over her identification papers.

Tania tries to flee the cops who wrestle her to the ground. She cries out to Ivan to run away, which he does with mixed feelings. Now he will be on his own. Like all young men who complain about smother love, he will find it hard to live without her.

She is taken to a detention center where most of the action of this taut and powerful film takes place. It is in many ways a prison genre work, including a food fight done as comic relief, but with the added dimension of being a foreigner. Some of the most interesting scenes involve her in discussions with a female guard who has no enthusiasm for her job but needs the money. Tania develops close ties to another woman from Mali who has been beaten repeatedly for the guards by refusing to voluntarily return to her country. This is the same fate that awaits Tania as well.

In almost a documentary fashion, the film details the dehumanization that all jailed “illegal” immigrants face. In one truly memorable scene, we see Tania being “processed” through an airport building set up exclusively for deportees. After being forced to strip and put up with an invasive search (for god knows what), she is corralled into a tiny and poorly lit cell awaiting being put on a plane destined to Eastern Europe. It is like watching a steer being put through a meat packing house assembly line.

“Illegal” was directed by Oliver Masset-Depasse and stars Anne Coesens as Tania. She is brilliant.

In the press notes, the director is interviewed by Mattieu Recarte who asks:

Tania, the main character, is a Russian “illegal alien,” as the authorities say. Shouldn’t the French title have used the feminine spelling for illegal immigrant?

Masset-Depasse’s reply:

No, because it’s the “System,” a masculine word in French, that I consider “illegal,” not Tania. The administrative detention centers found in our countries, which supposedly respect human rights, are illegal. The vast majority of illegal immigrants held in these centers have had to flee extreme poverty, dictatorship, war etc., and when after an often trying and dangerous journey, they end up in our countries; we welcome them by putting them in prison. They are treated like criminals.

In fact, Belgium has already been convicted four times by the European Court of Human Rights for inhuman or degrading treatment. That shows you to what extent my country lives up to its ideals.

Using a modesty of means, “Illegal” tells a story that is not only dramatically compelling but politically necessary. One would only hope that young American film-makers will follow suit.

March 24, 2011

My Perestroika

Filed under: Film,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

Drawing obvious inspiration (at least to me) from Michael Apted’s “Up” series that documented the hopes and disappointments of a group of British men and women as they grow older (“28 Up, etc.), Robin Hessman’s “My Perestroika” does about the same thing for Russians who came of age at the very time the Soviet Union was collapsing—hence the title of the film.

The documentary, which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York, focuses on five classmates who represent a fairly representative cross-section of the Soviet Union, excepting a genuine working-class person in whose name the revolution was made. All of the subjects now regard this revolution as a total nightmare, although they are by no means in the kind of celebratory mood on display in the early 1990s when the Berlin Wall fell and liberation assumed the form of bananas and pornographic movies.

Borya and Lyuba Meyerson both teach at Moscow’s School #57. He was, like many Jews, alienated from the system at an early age. As an act of rebellion, he and many others would wear t-shirts with “USA” in big letters. Lyuba, whose mother warned her about hooking up with a Jew, describes herself as a total conformist when young.

Borya is seen teaching a high school civics class, explaining to his students how horrible communism was. The peasants were forced to share everything, he says. Can you imagine what it would be like–he asks them–if they were forced to live in a room all together? That was communism, he says ruefully. Looking at the way he is spoon feeding ideology to his students, I could not help but feel that his pedagogical methods were influenced by what he heard growing up in the 1970s.

Ruslan Stupin was a member of a punk rock band called Naiv in the early 90s that sang songs about the dirty imperialists, sort of a consciousness in transition so to speak. The words might be Red but the style was in defiance of Soviet normalcy from the pierced noses to the tattoos. One of the performers had a day job in a bank and wore a necktie. The band’s black leather and torn t-shirts became a faded memory. Like the punk movement in the West, this current soon learned the ways of the world and how to fit in. Just look at Johnny Rotten’s career for some insights into this process. Once he was an “anarchist”, or at least sounded like one, and now he performs in Israel.

Olga Durikova is a single mom who maintains billiard tables for a large company. She tells us repeatedly that she is apolitical but has sense enough to state that the old system had its saving graces. You didn’t have to worry about unemployment and when you reached 60, you could count on a pension. One might say that many people in Detroit would now look at this as a worker’s paradise.

Least interesting is Andrei Yevgrafov, who runs a men’s boutique that looks a bit like Paul Stuart in New York. His biggest disappointment when young was not being accepted into the Communist Party. He now takes solace in selling shirts that cost $195 each.

Every single one of these people would be violently opposed to a return to the old ways but are clearly disenchanted with the way things are now. They are also repulsed by Vladimir Putin who remains something of an idol of those sectors of the American left who think in terms of counter-hegemonic blocs. Apparently Putin’s willingness to utilize authoritarian methods in the course of strengthening the Russian economy was all that some required for their endorsement. Some Russians, especially those that don’t like late night visits from the cops, feel differently.

The film mixes footage of the five subjects from their youth, adorned in red kerchiefs and marching on May Day parades, with their current life. There is a keen sense of irony in all this that begins to wear thin after an hour or so.

The film was directed by an American named Robin Hessman who developed a fascination for the USSR as a child. While the war in Vietnam and ghetto rebellions inspired some of us to read Karl Marx, Ms. Hessman appeared to prefer the very propaganda that her subjects would reject. The press notes state:

I have been curious about Russia and the Soviet Union for as long as I can remember.

Growing up in the US in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was impossible to miss the fact that the USSR was considered our enemy and, according to movies and television, plotting to destroy the planet with their nuclear weapons.

Interest in the “Evil Empire” was everywhere. When I was seven, my 2nd grade class made up a game: USA vs. USSR. The girls were the USA, with headquarters at the jungle gym. The boys were the USSR, and were hunkered down at the sand box. And for some reason, the boys allowed me to be the only girl in the USSR. And thus, my dilemma. My best friends were among the girls, but I was a curious kid, and I wanted to know what was going on in the USSR. Unable to choose between them, I became a double agent.

So I suppose it was my insatiable curiosity about this purportedly diabolical country that led me to beg my parents to allow me to subscribe to Soviet Life magazine at age ten. (I have no idea how I even knew it existed.) As children of the McCarthy era, they were concerned about the repercussions on my future, but I pleaded and they gave in. It came each month, wrapped in a brown paper wrapper – my political pornography.

Political pornography indeed.

Ms. Hessman turned her obsession with the USSR into something of a career, going off to study in Leningrad in January 1991 at the tender age of 18. She eventually got a job at the Leningrad Film studios and the rest is history.

Although the film is filled with references to the stormy events of the early 90s, including a failed coup d’état by the Communists, there is very little attempt to provide any kind of context except for how her subjects related to these events personally. My guess is that she chose her subjects since their anomie and general feelings of disillusionment resonate with her own.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is its ability to hone in on the stifling Red culture that turned so many people against the system. The boring television shows, the inspirational speeches about a farmer who broke a wheat-growing contest, the pressures to conform—all of it would drive a normal person to rebel against the system.

Come to think of it. That’s more or less the reason I became an unrepentant Marxist. A steady diet of the Reader’s Digest, John Wayne movies, morning recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, ducking and covering in nuclear air raid drills, and a thousand other things made me the malcontent I am today. Long live communism!

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