Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 31, 2012

The primary academic McCarthyite was Karl Wittfogel

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,Korea,racism — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

Karl Wittfogel

What follows is page 94-99 in Bruce Cuming’s brilliant “The Korean War: a history”, published in 2010. The book is not just a history of the war. It is a deeply insightful study of the politics and culture of the early 1950s, when the Korean War was raging. I simply can’t recommend this book highly enough. This passage that deals with a side of Karl Wittfogel that was unknown to me gives you an idea of the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to put “orientalism” on trial even when the viewpoint was that of a noted Marxist scholar like Wittfogel as well as Leon Trotsky.


The primary academic McCarthyite was Karl Wittfogel, who had a strange trajectory out of the same milieu as Bertolt Brecht: he was the leading ideologue of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, and the leading proponent of Karl Marx’s theory of “the Asiatic Mode of Production.” Stalin purged him for reasons that are not entirely clear, and Wittfogel came to the United States and established himself as a scholar with his magnum opus, Oriental: Despotism. Marx’s theory appraised Asia by reference to what it lacked when set against the standard-issue European model of development: feudalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, capitalism. A brutal satrap presided over a semiarid environment, running armies of bureaucrats and soldiers, regulating the paths of great rivers, and employing vast amounts of slave labor in gigantic public works projects (such as China’s Great Wall). The despot above and the cringing mass below prevented the emergence of anything resembling a modern middle class.

Leon Trotsky, his biographer Isaac Deutscher, the Soviet dissident Nikolai Bukharin, and Wittfogel all likened Stalin to Eastern potentates, especially Genghis Khan, and thought his regime was a species of Oriental despotism, the worst features of the “Asiatic mode of production” coming to the fore. It is stunning to see Trotsky open his biography of Stalin with a first sentence remarking that the old revolutionist Leonid Krassin “was the first, if I am not mistaken, to call Stalin an ‘Asiatic'”; Trotsky depicts “Asiatic” leaders as cunning and brutal, presiding over static societies with a huge peasant base. “Cunning” and “shrewd” were standard adjectives in stereotypes of Asians, particularly when they were denied civil rights and penned up in Chinatowns by whites-only housing restrictions, leading to uniform typecasting from a distance—peering over a high board fence, so to:speak. “Brutal” was another, at least since Genghis Khan, with Pol Pot and Mao reinforcing the image in our time. The broadest distinction, between static or indolent East and dynamic, progressive West, goes all the way back to Herodotus and Aristotle.

Marx never really investigated East Asia, but learned enough to know that if China fit his theory, Japan with its feudalism (and “petite culture”) clearly did not. Wittfogel, however, applied his notions of Oriental despotism to every dynastic empire with a river running through it—China, tsarist Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Incas, even the Hopi Indians of Arizona. By this time he had done a full-fledged, high-wire tenko ( Japanese for a political flip-flop), reemerging as an organic reactionary and trying to re-produce himself in, of all places, Seattle—the most thoroughly middle-class city in America. Wittfogel wrote for many extreme-right-wing publications and played a critical role in the purges of China scholars and Foreign Service officers during-the McCarthy period. Hardly any scholars would testify against Owen Lattimore, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s prime professorial target, but the University of Washington furnished three: Wittfogel, Nikolas Poppe (a Soviet expert on Mongolia who had defected to the Nazis in 1943), and George Taylor, a British scholar-journalist.

After teaching in the Philadelphia area in the mid-1970s– where I was pleased to meet Olga Lang, Wittfogel’s first wife (“Why did you divorce?” I asked. “Irreconcilable political differences,” she answered)—I wound up at the University of Washington, which has one of the oldest East Asian programs in the United States. Around that time Perry Anderson published Lineages of the Absolutist State. At the end of this magisterial book rests an eighty-seven-page “Note” on the theory of the Asiatic mode of production,’ where Anderson shows that Marx’s views on Asia differed little from those of Hegel, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and a host of other worthies; they were all peering through the wrong end of a telescope, or in a mirror, weighing a smattering of knowledge about Asia against their understanding of how the West developed. Nor did Marx ever take the “Asiatic mode” very seriously; he was always interested in one thing, really, and that was capitalism (even when it came to communism). Anderson called Wittfogel a “vulgar charivari” and recommended giving this theory an unceremonious burial, concluding that “in the night of our ignorance … all alien shapes take on the same hue.” I eagerly recommended his book to my colleagues: a good friend said, “He doesn’t know any Chinese.” Another responded, “Isn’t he a Marxist?”—meaning Anderson, not Wittfogel.

The theory never really got a proper burial, though, it just reappears in less-conspicuous forms. It isn’t politically correct to say “Oriental” or “Asiatic” anymore. Stalin is long dead, but Stalinism is apparently not, and it’s still okay to say almost anything about Stalinism. Furthermore, lo and behold, one set of “Orientals” has kept it alive: journalists use the term time and again to describe North Korea, without any hint of qualifying or questioning their position. The idea that the DPRK is a pure form of “Stalinism in the East” goes back to the 1940s, and was constantly reinforced by Berkeley’s Robert Scalapino, a Cold War scholar who came along in the late 1950s and benefited as Much as anyone from the post-McCarthy accommodation between the right and the middle. North Korean political practice is reprehensible, but we are not responsible for it. More disturbing is the incessant stereotyping and demonizing of this regime in the United States. When Kim II Sung died in 1994, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “The Headless Beast.” Assertions that his son is simply crazy abound, but when they enter the thinking of fine analyst such as Steven Coll in The New Yorker, a magazine with a venerable tradition of fact-checking [except when it comes to Bob Dylan quotes], you might ask which psychiatrist diagnosed Kim? Another expert recently wrote, as if everyone knows this, that North Korea is “a hybrid of Stalinism and oriental despotism.

Kim Jong Il, of course, specializes in do-it-yourself stereotyping, masquerading as the Maximum Leader of a Communist opera bouffe in elevator shoes and 1970s double-knit pants suit, fattening himself while the masses starve, which makes it hard to argue that “Oriental despotism” is not the name of his politics. But there is no evidence in the North Korean experience of the mass violence against whole classes of people or the wholesale “purge” that so clearly characterized Stalinism, and that was particularly noteworthy in the scale of deaths in the land reform campaigns in China and North Vietnam and the purges of the Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, North Korea remains everyone’s example of worst-case socialism and (until 1991) Soviet stoogery, leading American observers whether at the time or since to deem it impossible for the DPRK to have had any capacity for independent action in 1950.

In fact Kim and his late father, and the ideologues around them, continue the ancient monarchical practice in East and West of “the king’s two bodies,” a body politic and a “body natural.” The latter is an ordinary, frail human being who happens to be king, who will go to his death like anyone else: Kim Jong II, in short, with the dyspeptic, cynical, irritated face of a man who, from birth, had no chance of living up to his father—yet he has to be king. The other is a superhuman presence, an absolutely perfect body representing the god-king, maintained through the centuries as an archetype of the exquisite leader. (And with this you get North Korean inanities such as Kim Jong Il scoring eagles on his first golf round.) In death the body natural disappears, but the soul of the god-king passes on to the next king. In Pyongyang this translated into Kim II Sung’s “seed” bringing forth his first son, Jong II, continuing the perfect “bloodlines” that his scribes never tire of applauding. The family line thus becomes immortal, explaining why Kim Ii Sung was not just president-for-life, but remained president of the DPRK in his afterlife. The high-level defector Hwang Jang-yop told Bradley Martin that the two Kims “turned Stalinism and Marxism-Leninism on their heads by reverting to Confucian notions.”‘

North Korea is thus a modern form of monarchy, realized in a highly nationalistic, postcolonial state. “The social unity expressed in the ‘body of the despot,'” Jameson pointed out, is political, but also analogous to various religious practices. That the favored modern practice of such regimes should be nationalism (the leader’s body, the body politic, the national body) is also entirely predictable. But the Western left (let alone liberals) utterly fails to understand “the immense Utopian appeal of nationalism”; its morbid qualities are easily grasped, but its healthy qualities for the collective, and for the tight unity that postcolonial leaders crave, are denied. When you add to postcolonial nationalism Korea’s centuries of royal succession and neo-Confucian philosophy, it might be possible to understand North Korea as an unusual but predictable combination of monarchy, nationalism, and Korean political culture.

July 30, 2012

The Arab Revolt and the conspiracist left

Filed under: conspiracism,middle east — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

After reading Charlie Skelton’s 5000-word article in the July 12th Guardian titled The Syrian opposition: who’s doing the talking?, I was reminded of the difference between Marxism and what I call conspiracism. Marxism is based on a class analysis but the conspiracists essentially subscribe to a Great Man theory of history in which the CIA and parastatal institutions pull the strings in a global puppet show.

They think that the left’s main purpose is to pull back the curtain like Toto in The Wizard of Oz and expose the puppeteers, as if such knowledge will put a stop to capitalist intervention in the Middle East or elsewhere. And more problematically, the conspiracists see CIA support for an insurgent movement as prima facie evidence that it must be opposed. For most of the conspiracist left, Libya and Syria are poster children for their peculiar worldview. But at least for one high-profile member of this current—Michel Chossudovsky of Globalresearch.org—the net is cast wider. The Egyptian revolution is tainted as well since some of its leaders had the backing of the West.

Skelton’s article consists of an effort to connect the dotted lines between the anti-Assad movement and Western imperialism through numerous “revelations” such as the Bilderberg links of an SNC leader:

Here is Bassma Kodmani, seen leaving this year’s Bilderberg conference in Chantilly, Virginia.

Kodmani is a member of the executive bureau and head of foreign affairs, Syrian National Council. Kodmani is close to the centre of the SNC power structure, and one of the council’s most vocal spokespeople. “No dialogue with the ruling regime is possible. We can only discuss how to move on to a different political system,” she declared this week. And here she is, quoted by the newswire AFP: “The next step needs to be a resolution under Chapter VII, which allows for the use of all legitimate means, coercive means, embargo on arms, as well as the use of force to oblige the regime to comply.”

This year was Kodmani’s second Bilderberg. At the 2008 conference, Kodmani was listed as French; by 2012, her Frenchness had fallen away and she was listed simply as “international” – her homeland had become the world of international relations.

Skelton is some kind of special correspondent on Bilderberg for the Guardian, filing his first article in 2009. I am not quite sure how he got this gig since his prior jobs were writing comedy and reviewing porn films for the Erotic Review. Well, maybe that was just the right preparation.

Bilderberg is a kind of Holy Grail for the conspiracy-minded. This is supposedly where the ruling class gets together once a year to map out plans on how to dominate the world. For a leftist Ian Fleming, this is a collection of super-villains just waiting for a leftist James Bond to take on. Maybe someone like Charlie Skelton:

I arrived last night, under cover of darkness. I told the cab driver to stop 50 metres from the hotel. He asked why. I couldn’t tell him that it was so I could case the entrance for FBI lenses. I simply muttered that I couldn’t explain. His eyes lit up. “Aha! I see! I know!” What did he know? And who is that following us? A man in a BMW. Definite spook.

In Skelton’s entire 5000-word article, there was not a single reference to the ordinary Syrians who have risked their lives to oppose Bashar al-Assad either through peaceful protests or through armed struggle. 20,000 people have lost their lives in this conflict so far, the overwhelming majority of whom it is safe to say are opposed to the dictatorship. If Syria had the same population as the USA, this would have represented 300,000 deaths, a staggering figure.

What would cause so many people to risk their lives in such a one-sided battle? For an answer to this, you must look elsewhere than comedian-conspiracists like Charlie Skelton. For all of the preoccupation with the Western corporate elite and the CIA, the real answer lies within Syria itself and the wrenching social changes that Marxist scholar Bassam Haddad has identified in the article The Syrian Regime’s Business Backbone:

By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.

Successive years of scant rainfall and drought after 2003 produced massive rural in-migration to the cities — more than 1 million people had moved by 2009 — widening the social and regional gaps still further. Major cities, such as Damascus and Aleppo, absorbed that migration more easily than smaller ones, which were increasingly starved of infrastructural investment. Provincial cities like Dir‘a, Idlib, Homs and Hama, along with their hinterlands, are now the main battlegrounds of the rebellion. Those living in rural areas have seen their livelihoods gutted by reduction of subsidies, disinvestment and the effects of urbanization, as well as decades of corrupt authoritarian rule. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings motivated them to express their discontent openly and together.

The other thing that you will never find in conspiracist literature—such as it is—is an examination of one of the most telling connections between the CIA and the Arab world, namely the service that Qaddafi and al-Assad performed for President Bush’s extraordinary rendition program. Compared to them, Bassma Kodmani’s attendance at Bilderberg meetings is small peanuts.

One of the victims was Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen and telecommunications engineer who spent a year in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons being beaten with shredded cables.

Accused of being a member of al-Qaeda, Arar’s politics are anything but Islamist. He recently founded an online publication called Prism that is radical and secularist. There you can find an article by Arar titled Syria: Foreign Interference Between Myth and Reality that is a welcome corrective to Charlie Skelton’s maunderings. Arar writes:

Exaggeration of ‘outside influence’

Now to claim that there is no outside, foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs is to deny the obvious. But in my opinion this “interference” has been exaggerated (the analyses I’ve read with respect to this issue are based on speculations that are not supported by facts on the ground). Yes, there are countries who have always had a strong desire to see the Syrian-Iranian marriage fall apart. But to what extent these countries are influencing events on the ground is far from certain. For instance, the efforts reportedly led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to equip the rebels with heavy arms have not yet borne fruits, and it seems the FSA is mostly using light to medium weapons.

Most of these weapons have either been bought from corrupt army officers, or have been acquired by raiding weapons caches. Qatar and Saudi Arabia reportedly would want to make sure that weaponry would only be distributed to those groups that would pledge allegiance to them. While some groups may accept the deal, it is far from certain that all groups would accept any preconditions – as recently reported by Time magazine.

While the CIA may be present near the Syrian-Turkish border, all evidence points to the fact that the US is not very keen to arm the rebels, out of fear the arms would eventually fall in the hands of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. In fact, Washington, despite the anti-Assad rhetoric we read about in media headlines, is not very keen on replacing the Assad regime with one whose allegiance to the US would be uncertain.

The two reasons just mentioned explain why the US has so far refused to supply weapons to Syria’s armed opposition. The latest discussions that took place in Geneva demonstrate that the US still prefers “a political solution” (whatever that means).

In light of Arar’s reference to CIA fears that arms would fall into the hands of Islamists, it should be noted that the bourgeois press has stepped up its warnings about the threat of Jihadism in Syria in a manner that suggests compliance with Obama’s foreign policy agenda. Despite all the talk about the U.S. pulling strings in Syria, there is every reason to believe that Washington has about as much use for the FSA as it does for Hamas or Hizbollah.

For some conspiracists, the Jihadist angle is paramount. Al-Qaeda is underneath every bed in the Middle East, a fear that originates with the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001. For people like Global Research’s Michel Chossudovsky and Voltairenet’s Thierry Meyssan, the revolts in Libya and Syria are just the latest evidence of CIA plots drawing upon willing Islamist assets.

Meyssan is the author of two “truther” books: 9/11: The Big Lie and Pentagate, a book that argues that a missile rather than a jet hit the Pentagon. Ordinarily, I would discount Meyssan as a typical nutcase but apparently he does have some traction with self-avowed Marxists like the PSL’s Diana Barahona who advised North Star readers:

For a good explanation of who the armed Syrian opposition really is, read “Who is fighting in Syria” by Thierry Meyssan, reporting from Damascus. http://www.voltairenet.org/Who-is-fighting-in-Syria

Brian Slocums, the author of the article On the Ground with the Syrian Opposition that Barahona was commenting on, took a look at Meyssan’s piece and found it lacking:

However lets look at the rest of the claims in this article. Conroy’s companions in the photo are described as “al Qaeda” leaders”. Abdulhakim Belhadj (who is correctly identified) was certainly nothing to do with al Qaeda when the photo was taken, but its true he did have a jihadist past 10 years ago, so that’s a half-truth (a good score for Meyssan). The guy who I think is mis-identified as al-Harati,probably had a similar past. But the real al-Harati has neither any al Qaeda connnection nor a jihadist past: he was living quietly in Dublin from his teenage years until the outbreak of the Libyan revolution in 2011. The article claims “According to former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Mahdi al-Harati is still wanted in Spain for his involvement in the Madrid bombings “. This piece of Meyssan arithmetic is a slander within a slander: the accusation that Aznar made was directed against Belhadj , not al-Harati, and that had no foundation in fact – no named persons are “wanted in Spain” for the Madrid bombings.

It has always struck me odd that sections of the left, either Marxist like Barahona or conspiracist like Meyssan, can be so credulous when it comes to matters such as this. When their enemies are writing something that goes against their ideological grain, they will use every last ounce of intellectual energy to debunk a Judith Miller or a Christopher Hitchens. But when they are promoting their own agenda, critical faculties go down the drain.

For his part, Michel Chossudovsky blames the 9/11 attacks on a CIA/ISI cabal:

The 9-11 terrorists did not act on their own volition. The suicide hijackers were instruments in a carefully planned intelligence operation. The evidence confirms that Al Qaeda is supported by Pakistan’s military intelligence, the Inter-services Intelligence (ISI). Amply documented, the ISI owes its existence to the CIA.

So no wonder he views the Syrian revolt as more of the same:

Since the middle of March 2011, Islamist armed groups –covertly supported by Western and Israeli intelligence– have conducted terrorist attacks directed against government buildings including acts of arson. Amply documented, trained gunmen and snipers including mercenaries have targeted the police, armed forces as well as innocent civilians. There is ample evidence, as outlined in the Arab League Observer Mission report, that these armed groups of mercenaries are responsible for killing civilians.

To give credit where credit is due, Chossudovsky is at least consistent in applying the conspiracist template to Middle East politics. It is not just Libya and Syria that are victims of a CIA conspiracy. You can find it virtually everywhere, including Egypt and Tunisia:

The cooptation of the leaders of major opposition parties and civil society organizations in anticipation of the collapse of an authoritarian puppet government is part of Washington’s design, applied in different regions of the World.

The process of cooptation is implemented and financed by US based foundations including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and  Freedom House (FH). Both FH and the NED have links to the US Congress. the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the US business establishment. Both the NED and FH are known to have ties to the CIA.

The NED is actively involved in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria. Freedom House supports several civil society organizations in Egypt.

But the plot thickens. It is not just the Middle East that is the victim of such a massive conspiracy. Guess what? Remember those protests on Wall Street that offered its solidarity with revolts in the Middle East? Those too were tainted by the Masters of the Universe whose headquarters are in places like Langley and Foggy Bottom:

In the course of the last decade, “colored revolutions” have emerged in several countries. The “colored revolutions” are US intelligence ops which consist in covertly supporting protest movements with a view to triggering “regime change” under the banner of a pro-democracy movement.

“Colored revolutions” are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, among others. The objective of a “colored revolution” is to foment social unrest and use the protest movement to topple the existing government. The ultimate foreign policy goal is to instate a compliant pro-US government (or “puppet regime”).

“The Arab Spring”

In Egypt’s “Arab Spring”, the main civil society organizations including  Kifaya (Enough) and The April 6 Youth Movement were not only supported by US based foundations, they also had the endorsement of the US State Department. (For details see Michel Chossudovsky, The Protest Movement in Egypt: “Dictators” do not Dictate, They Obey Orders, Global Research, January 29, 2011)

Several key organizations currently involved in The Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) movement played a significant role in “The Arab Spring”. Of significance, “Anonymous”, the social media “hacktivist” group, was involved in waging cyber-attacks on Egyptian government websites at the height of “The Arab Spring”.(http://anonops.blogspot.com, see also http://anonnews.org/)

In May 2011, “Anonymous” waged cyberattacks on Iran and last August, it waged similar cyber-attacks directed against the Syrian Ministry Defense. These cyber-attacks were waged in support of the Syrian “opposition” in exile, which is largely integrated by Islamists. (See  Syrian Ministry Of Defense Website Hacked By ‘Anonymous’, Huffington Post, August 8, 2011).

The actions of “Anonymous” in Syria and Iran are consistent with the framework of the “Colored Revolutions”. They seek to demonize the political regime and create political instability. (For analysis on Syria’s Opposition, see Michel Chossudovsky, SYRIA: Who is Behind The Protest Movement? Fabricating a Pretext for a US-NATO “Humanitarian Intervention” Global Research, May 3, 2011)

Ah, what a mind-boggling conspiracy! So deep that it is capable of turning the most powerful anti-capitalist movement in recent memory into a cats paw serving the interest of multinational corporations.

Most of the people whose articles appear on Global Research are outright cranks like Chossudovsky or Marxists with conspiracist deviations like Richard Becker, a leader of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Unfortunately you also see pieces by people like John Pilger and Eva Golinger who should know better.

It is difficult to determine in advance how the conspiracist current will fare in a period of deepening class confrontation. With its obvious hostility to grass roots movements in the Middle East and willingness to write off even the Occupy Wall Street movement as an imperialist plot, you are dealing with people who can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. Once upon a time such an inability could serve as an insanity defense in a murder trial. Let’s hope that things don’t reach such a state that the left has to confront sometime in the future the criminally insane among us.

The kiss

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 12:37 pm

July 27, 2012

Three outstanding Asian films

Filed under: Asia,China,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

As nations with a distinct identity going back for thousands of years, China, Korea and Japan provide a deep well of historical sagas on a par with Beowulf, the Iliad or any other more familiar Western tales. Not surprisingly, the film industry of each country has tapped into this rich vein in order to create memorable works. This review takes a look at “Sacrifice”, a new film opening today at the Quad Cinema in NYC by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige of “Farewell, My Concubine” fame as well as two fairly recent films on Netflix streaming that will appeal to those who enjoy swordplay and thrillingly choreographed battle scenes involving thousands of men in armor, and to those who are tired of postmodernist irony. One is a Korean film titled “War of the Arrows” that is based on the Manchu invasion of Korea in the 17th century, an event that actually resonates with more recent history. The other is a masterpiece by John Woo titled “Red Cliff” that is set in 3rd century AD China and that thankfully rescues the great director from the hit-making CPA-driven machinery of Hollywood.

“Sacrifice” is based on the classic play “Orphan of Zhao” that was written in the 13th century by Ji Jun-Xiang and is the first Chinese play known to Europe. It was adapted by a number of important authors, including Voltaire. Like much of Shakespeare’s tragedies, revenge is a key element of the narrative in Kaige’s film as well as the two others.

As is so often the case in this genre, warlords are the dominant characters. The film begins with a bloody attack on the Zhao clan by a rival named Tu Angu who seeks to usurp his rivals in a Macbeth-like manner. Every last one of the Zhao clan is slaughtered except the chieftan’s son who is being delivered  by court physician Cheng Ying while the mayhem is occurring.

When one of Tu Angu’s henchmen comes to Zhao’s chambers to retrieve the newborn child and deliver him to be slaughtered, the mother and the physician plead for mercy. Against his better judgment the warrior allows the child to be delivered to safety. When Tu Angu learns that the infant is still alive and concealed somewhere in the city, he orders all newborn male children to be seized from the parents and brought to him, including Chen Ying’s own son who was born within hours of Zhao’s.

In a mix-up that is part deliberate and part accidental, Tu Angu kills Chen Ying’s newborn son thinking that he was Zhao’s, as well as the boy’s mother. Chen Ying is now left alone in the world with nothing but the son of the leader of the Zhao clan who is led to believe that he is the physician’s son.

Showing a shred of remorse for having killed what he thought to be the physician’s son, Tu Angu becomes a godfather to what he assumes is the physician’s son and teaches him the martial arts, including swordsmanship. Chin Yeng has an ulterior motive in allowing the boy to be groomed by his wife and son’s killer. Once the adoptee has reached adulthood, he will learn that his godfather killed his real mother and father. The physician is sure that  the youth will seek bloody vengeance.

Despite the expected presence of swordplay and pitched battles on horseback, “Sacrifice” is much more about human relationships and particularly the divided loyalties between Zhao’s son and the two father figures in his life. As one of China’s finest directors, Chen Kaige elicits memorable performances from Ge You who plays the physician and Wang Xue-Qi who plays Tu Angu.

Asked in an interview how he feels about the inroads that Hollywood is making into China, Chen Kaige answers that his films should generate mass appeal to audiences tiring of tinseltown superficiality. Considering his words, it should be obvious that “Sacrifice” is just the sort of thing that will appeal to American audiences tired of another stupid Ben Stiller movie like “Watch” that opens today as well:

What I can say is that we need to develop the market, if we want people to watch a variety of films; you need a variety of audience. This is a like a chain. Young people under 20, they go to McDonalds, they drink Coca Cola, they wear Nike and they watch Hollywood movies.

You can’t imagine the kids will say to you, “Let’s go to McDonalds, and then let’s go to the Peking Opera.” No way. It’s natural the young kids want to watch U.S. movies. The U.S movies are providing something interesting – high technology, a feast of visual and sound effects, it’s like playing a game.

What can we do? We are facing a big challenge from the invasion of Hollywood films. I think we should stay with the situation. We don’t need to be scared or screaming like crazy saying “The wolf is here!” I feel we should make more stories people can relate to and not just make big films to compete with Hollywood. You can have your own story to tell, which is wonderful.

“War of the Arrows” begins in the same fashion as “Sacrifice” with Chinese warlords wiping out another clan, this time Koreans. And as is the case with “Sacrifice”, it is left up to Nam-yi, the sole male survivor of the attack, to wreak vengeance on his father’s killer. The only other survivor of the attack is his younger sister Ja-in. So, basically you are dealing with a mixture of Macbeth and Hamlet with a lot more action. Who can ask for anything more?

In “War of the Arrows”, the main weapon is a bow and arrow as the title indicates. Nam-yi is a master archer who is living a purposeless life other than perfecting his martial arts. On the day of his sister’s wedding, the same warlords that killed his father raid the compound and seize his sister. The rest of the film is dedicated to his pursuit of the kidnappers and the vengeance for his father’s killing.

While vengeance is a fairly universal theme in Asian film, either of the costume drama genre such as this or in more modern gangster films of the sort that John Woo perfected, it probably resonates more deeply with Koreans who were victimized by both the Chinese and the Japanse at different times in their history.

In preparing for another essay on the Korean War as represented in Korean film, I began reading Bruce Cumings’ “The Korean War”, a book published in 2010 that I can’t recommend more highly. Cumings is not only an authoritative and radical historian, he is also a gifted prose stylist who writes with genuine passion.

The book details the great feats of the anti-Japanese resistance in the 1930s that were led by Kim Il-Sung in Manchuria, the same location as the film’s narrative. Instead of a heroic resistance using bows and arrows, Kim Il Sung led a relatively small band (350) against far more powerful Japanese forces that relied on Korean traitors.

Director Kim Han-Min’s next film is titled “Battle of Myeongryang, Whirlwind Sea” and is scheduled to be released next summer. The AsianWiki describes it as follows:

Movie depicts the Battle of Myeongryang which took place October 26, 1597. The battle involved Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who had only 12 ships under his command, against the Japanese navy which had over a hundred ships. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin was able to successfully defeat the Japanese navy.

I would like to think that the director is channeling the spirit of Kim Il-Sung but am really holding out for the day when South Korean filmmakers can tell the truth about Kim Il-Sung himself, who was one of the last century’s greatest nationalist heroes next to Fidel Castro and Ho Chi-Minh.

Currently the only version of “Red Cliff” that can be seen on Netflix is the theatrical version, which is an ample 2 ½ hours. Although my remarks are based on this version, I  would urge you to consider purchasing the 2-DVD uncut version from amazon.com as I just did.

Red Cliff tells the story of the war between the Han Dynasty’s Chancellor Cao Cao and two southern warloards Sun Quan and Liu Bei. The climax of the film is a naval assault on the castle at Red Cliff defended by the outnumbered southern forces in the summer of 208. Although John Woo said that only 50 percent of the film is historically accurate, a monumental battle did take place that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty.

While the historical details of the actual battle are murky, this much is known. It did take place on the Yangtze River, which plays as much of a role in Chinese civilization as the Nile does in Egypt or the Mississippi in American (such as it is.)

Woo’s orchestration of the climactic scenes are about as stunning as any I have seen in this genre and make its Hollywood counterparts such as Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” look trivial by comparison. (Petersen, a rather good German director, should like Woo leave Hollywood behind if he wants to retain whatever integrity he still has.)

Like “The Orphan of Zhao”, the battle of Red Cliff has inspired many Chinese writers, including the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. There are also video games but I doubt that any could surpass Woo’s film which broke the box office record previously held by Titanic in mainland China, thus helping to realize Chen Kaige’s dream.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Woo’s work but suffice it to say that there would be no Quentin Tarentino if there was no John Woo. Tarentino’s films are practically a plagiarism on Woo’s work but without the visual poetry and the deeper moral sensibility.

After sixteen years in Hollywood, Woo returned to Asia to make a film that he had been dreaming about since the mid-80s. In an interview with the July 12, 2008 Singapore Strait Times, he explained his quest:

Woo says his patchy career in Hollywood was a learning experience: ‘In every film I make, be it an entertainment film or something more individualistic, I would search for some meaning that could sustain me for the period of film-making.’

But he hints that the experience had soured considerably by the time he did the Ben Affleck vehicle Paycheck (2003), a widely panned sci-fi thriller. [I saw it for the first time myself a month ago and can recommend it without reservations, if for no other reason that it is based on a Philip K. Dick novel.]

The script passed through many hands and was hemmed in by market considerations and budgetary constraints and there was also little room for improvisation once shooting started.

‘It was very different from how I worked previously as I would make changes on the fly. And it was hard for me to find meaning,’ he admits.

At the same time, there was a momentous event which prompted him to look back East – China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

‘I was very excited and moved and I even cried. I thought I should return and make more meaningful movies. Since I have learnt so much in Hollywood, why not take what I have learnt back to China?’ he says.

Having straddled both East and West, he wanted Red Cliff to be a conduit to expose Western audiences to Chinese culture. That is why the West is getting a single-serving version of the film clocking in at just 21/2 hours.

‘Western audiences don’t understand our history. They might even have trouble telling Zhou Yu from Zhao Yun since the names sound similar,’ he says. Zhou Yu is the military strategist to Sun Quan while Zhao Yun is a key general in Liu Bei’s army.

With all due respect to John Woo, I don’t worry much about Western audiences in general. After all, 40 percent of Americans reject the idea of evolution. My reviews are geared to the most intelligent Americans (as well as my readers worldwide), those who have come to the conclusion that capitalism is an irrational system or at least willing to listen to somebody who has such a belief. If you are looking for something to keep your spirit elevated in these most dismal times, I can recommend “Sacrifice”, “War of the Arrows” and “Red Cliff” without reservation.

July 25, 2012

Big Boys Gone Bananas!*; You’ve been Trumped

Filed under: Ecology,Film,workers — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

At first it seemed like a coincidence that two documentaries opening in New York would pit two leftist European filmmakers against prototypical scumbag American multinational corporations, but upon further reflection it seemed almost inevitable given today’s geopolitical realities.

Opening Friday at the Quad Cinema is “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” that recounts the ordeal that Swedish director Frederik Gertten went through after making a documentary titled “Bananas!*” in 2009 described as follows on his website (the asterisk in the films’ titles refers to the fact that they are about more than bananas):

Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez is on his biggest case ever. On behalf of twelve Nicaraguan banana workers he tackles the Dole Food Company in a ground-breaking legal battle for their use of a banned pesticide that was known to cause sterility. Can he beat the giant, or will the corporation get away with it? In the suspenseful documentary BANANAS!*, filmmaker Fredrik Gertten sheds new light on the global politics of food.

One third of the production price of the average banana is used simply to cover the cost of pesticides. All over the world, banana plantation workers are suffering and dying from the effects of these pesticides. Juan Dominguez, a million-dollar personal injury lawyer in Los Angeles, is on his biggest case ever representing over 10,000 Nicaraguan banana workers claiming to be afflicted by a pesticide known as Nemagon. Dole Food and Dow Chemicals are on trial.

Just before the film was scheduled to premiere at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival, Dole went on a fierce three-pronged offensive. Its public relations machinery lined up mainstream journalists to back their claim that the film was a fraud, mostly revolving around “evidence” that Juan Dominguez was a crook who lined up false testimonies from workers who had never suffered any damage from chemicals. The second prong was a lawsuit that would ensue once the film was released for general distribution. The third and final prong was heavy pressure applied on the film festival’s organizers to not show the film and if they did to preface it with a statement concurring with Dole’s charges. The fact that the festival was produced by the LA Times explains why the organizers acceeded to Dole’s demands. This is the same newspaper whose owner Sam Zell makes Rupert Murdoch look good, a greedy bastard who once told a conference on subprime mortgages: “This country needs a cleansing. We need to clean out all those people who never should have bought in the first place, and not give them sympathy.”

The mainstream media fell into line, buying into Dole’s talking points. Some of the television and radio coverage from back in 2009 is enough to make your blood boil with smarmy public tv and radio hosts wisecracking about Frederik Gertten’s documentary, making it sound like Clifford Irving’s Howard Hughes autobiography hoax. I was particularly incensed to hear a snatch of this sort of thing from KCRW, Los Angeles’s “alternative” radio station that is a disgusting outlet for NPR type cant.

Thrown back on the defensive, Gertten eventually wins support in his native Sweden, including both social democratic and conservative parliamentarians. Apparently the Swedes take their free speech rights far more seriously than the country famed for its bill of rights, eroding nowadays faster than Louisiana marshland.

Back in 2007 I reviewed “Michael Clayton“, a movie that like so many others in this genre (“Pelican Brief”, “The Net”, etc.) pitted an idealistic crusader against a malevolent corporation that stopped at nothing, including murder. I thought the film was good but qualified that with my feeling that:

Finally, it has to be said that the almost inevitable decision to make the corporation resort to murder undermines the credibility of the film. Since any such film today has to operate according to the conventions of drama, an old-fashioned villain is necessary. And what can be more villainous than murder? However, after Michael Clayton’s car was blown up, I began fidgeting in my seat and whispering to myself under my breath. What kind of corporation would take such enormous risks to stave off financial collapse?

In real life (and what better reflection of real life is there than the documenary?) corporations don’t go around blowing up cars. Instead, they do what Dole did. They buy off journalists and threaten legal action. The consequences are not as dire as murder, but they come close. Imagine what it feels like to spend three years or so in Nicaragua making a movie and then to have a bunch of bastards in suits telling you that your time and money were wasted?

I don’t want to give away any of the details of this gripping documentary but will say at this point that Bananas!* can be seen on Netflix streaming.

It is a toss-up to decide who is worse, Dole or Donald Trump—the villain in Anthony Baxter’s “You’ve been Trumped”, opening on August 3rd at the Angelica in New York.

Baxter’s film documents the struggle of farmers and other townspeople in Aberdeenshire, Scotland against an environmentally-destructive, esthetically garish and socially destructive golf course and luxury hotel complex on the nearby coastline. The site is one of the last places in Britain that has the original wilderness consisting of dunes and marshlands that are scientifically priceless and incapable of being reproduced.

This is the first film made by Anthony Baxter, who lives in Montrose, a small town that is a short drive from the Menie Estate on Aberdeenshire’s coast. Having made a documentary for BBC about man made erosion, he had become interested in the conflict between development and ecology.

Perhaps nobody else better symbolizes the power of Mammon than the awful Donald Trump who swaggers his way through the film. He tells reporters that the project is environmentally aware despite the fact that no environmentalist organization in Scotland has given its blessing.

He has the blessing, however, of the ruling Scottish National Party that has been seduced by the promise of jobs. This is the party that Sean Connery has been a leading member of years but this did not prevent him from turning down an invitation to attend opening day ceremonies at the golf course.

When the local college decided to award Trump with a honorary degree, a former dean showed up at the school to protest. At Trump’s news conference, Baxter peppers Trump with questions about his bullying of local homeowners and proof of the jobs supposedly being created. As always, Trump treats his interlocutor as if he were a peasant and he was King Louis XIV.

In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, and one that relates it to the travails of Frederik Gertten, Baxter is seen being hauled off to a local jail for the “crime” of entering Trump’s property in order to find out why local residents’ water had been unavailable for over a week after excavation had begun.

Both Baxter and Gertten are heroes for out time, guerrilla filmmakers taking on the high and the mighty. I strongly urge my readers to attend screenings in New York and to check the film’s websites to see if it is coming to theaters near where you live.



July 24, 2012

Lenin’s Tomb: The Syrian revolt enters a new phase

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm

The Syrian revolt enters a new phase

As Bashar al-Assad flees the capital, the armed segments of the revolution appear to be inflicting blows on sections of the security apparatus and taking over major cities: the revolution is turning a corner.  Robert Fisk reports that a crucial dynamic now is the fracturing of an alliance between the Sunni middle class and the Alawite regime, signalled by the spread of the revolt to Aleppo.  And defections from the state-capitalist power bloc continue.  Indeed, Juan Cole has suggested that such divisions must run deep in the Syrian state for the opposition to be capable of planting a bomb that can kill a senior minister

The course of this uprising, from the immolation of Hasan Ali Akleh in January 2011, redolent of Mohamed Bouazizi’s death in Tunisia, to the suicide attack on the defence minister, has been brutal. In the early stages, the Syrian government had a monopoly on violence. It was police violence and the decades-long rule by the Ba’athist dictatorship, undergirded by repressive ’emergency law’, which provoked the ‘days of rage’; it was the police beating of a shopkeeper that provoked a spontaneous protest on 17th February 2011 in the capital, which was duly suppressed; it was the imprisonment of Kurdish and other political prisoners that led to the spread of hunger strikes against the regime by March 2011. And it was the security forces who started to murder protesters in large numbers that same month. It was they also who repeatedly opened fire on large and growing demonstrations in April 2011. In the ensuing months until today, they have used used everything from tear gas to live bullets to tank shells.

And the main organisations of the Syrian opposition pointedly refused the strategy of armed uprising, noting what had happened in Libya, and arguing that the terrain of armed conflict was the ground on which Assad was strongest. Nonetheless, the scale of the repression eventually produced an armed wing of the revolt. The Free Syrian Army became the main vector for armed insurgency, expanded by defections from the army and the security apparatus. Now it is making serious advances.

In response to the insurgency, the argument among a significant section of the antiwar left has been that this revolution has already been hijacked, that those who initially rose up have been sidelined and marginalised by forces allied with external powers, intelligence forces and so on. Thus, the arms, money and international support for the armed rebellion is said to be coming from Washington, and Riyadh, and Tel Aviv. The likely outcome is the decapitation of a regime that is problematic for the US, and its replacement with a regime that is more amenable to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, they argue, the political forces likely to hegemonise the emerging situation are essentially reactionary and sectarian. The left, democratic and anti-imperialist forces are, they say, too weak to lead the fight against Assad’s regime. And so, as Sami Ramadani puts it in the latest Labour Left Briefing, “the sacrifices of the Syrian people have been hijacked by NATO and the Saudi-Qatari dictators”.

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Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

In March 2010 I wrote a review of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harikiri, a 1962 film that was as much of a assault on bushido (warrior) values as the knife upon the stomach in ritual suicides.

Following up on his 2010 remake of 13 Assassins, a film I reviewed last year that was more partial to bushido values, Takashi Miike presents a new version of Harikiri now showing at the IFC Center in NYC titled Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. Other than its use of 3D, the film does not stray too far from the original, as was also the case with Miike’s reworking of 13 Assassins. Considering this 62 year old prolific director’s (88 films to his credit) unquenchable appetite for the bizarre (see my reviews of the whacked-out Great Yokai War, Zebraman, Happiness of the Katakuris and Dead or Alive), he plays his versions of Harikiri and 13 Assassins fairly straight. I can only surmise that this is out of respect for two of the greatest films to come out of Japan in the 1960s, both on a par with anything by Kurosawa.

If you read my review of the 1962 Harakiri, that should suffice as an introduction to Miike’s remake, especially these paragraphs:

It stars Tatsuya Nakadai as the middle-aged ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo who has arrived at the Iyi palace in order to make a request that was frequently being heard in such quarters in the capital of Edo in 1630.

Without a job and any prospects in a period of general peace, the warrior decides to do the only thing that makes sense—to disembowel himself in the house of a powerful Lord with all the dignity that entails.

The lord of the house Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) feels duty-bound to explain to Tatsuya that when another ronin named Motome Chijiiwa showed up a couple of months earlier with a similar request, they decided to force him to go through with harakiri even though it was likely that he was only seeking a handout to last him for a few days. Given the collapse of so many samurai clans in the recent past, there had to be some way to set an example for other such beggars. Tatsuya reassures the lord of the manor that he fully intends to kill himself.

Unlike Masaki Kobayashi, the director of the original film who had deep pacifist and anti-authoritarian convictions spurred by his experience as a soldier during WWII, Miike does not have a reputation for being political. Despite this, he clearly had an affinity for the story of dispossessed warriors based on his heartfelt direction. Given Japan’s protracted decline over the past quarter-century, it would be hard for any sensitive filmmaker not to be drawn to material that dramatized the conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

As a long-time enthusiast of samurai movies, dating back to my encounter with Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in 1961, I watched Miike’s latest with a somewhat different perspective. After Fukushima, it is difficult not to think about the problems of Japanese authoritarianism whether it is manifested in 17th century feudalism or 21st century capitalism. Of course, the underlying explanation for the continued existence of authoritarianism is Japan’s failure to have undergone a thorough-going bourgeois-democratic revolution.

So deeply engrained in Japanese culture is bushido that the men who volunteered to go into the nuclear reactors initially were referred to as Atomic Samurai:

THEY are being hailed as the modern-day samurai — the 180 brave men who stayed behind to fight the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant knowing it was very likely they had volunteered for a suicide mission.

It is virtually impossible to talk to the workers by phone. But the message came out from one that he was “not afraid to die” — that was his job.

The families of these brave men may never see them again, but they are proud of their sacrifice.

A 27-year-old woman, whose Twitter name is @NamicoAoto, tweeted that her father had volunteered for Fukushima duty.

“I heard that he volunteered even though he will be retiring in just half a year and my eyes are filling up with tears,” she said.

“At home, he doesn’t seem like someone who could handle big jobs. But today, I was really proud of him. I pray for his safe return.”

Another loved one says in an email: “My father is still working at the plant. He says he’s accepted his fate, much like a death sentence.”

Prime Minister Naota Kan told the volunteers: “You are the only ones who can resolve a crisis. Retreat is unthinkable.”

And just as those higher up in the feudal chain exploited those lower down in 17th century Japan, so do the corporate elite and their political servants take advantage of these workers and the Japanese people in general.

When the Japanese economy was expanding rapidly back in the 60s and 70s, so much so that pundits began writing about the country overtaking the U.S., the social basis for blind loyalty was more solid. However, the steady decline of Japan makes the samurai ethos applied to the corporate world more difficult to sustain. The salaryman, the modern version of the warrior ready to commit harikiri on behalf of the boss, is not so eager to make an equivalent sacrifice as the October 5, 2002 Sydney Morning Herald reported:

In the late 1980s, when Japan’s economic miracle was in full bloom, an ad appeared on television exalting the corporate warrior hero, the salaryman. “Businessman! Businessman!” went the chirpy jingle. “Can you work 24 hours a day?”

It was selling one of the quick pick-me-up tonics in little brown bottles that helped push the salaryman to work harder and longer. The yellow and black label of this brand, the ad said, was a “token of courage”.

At the time, it must have made perfect sense as Japan Inc seemed to be on the verge of taking over the world, and the Japanese way of doing business was the way of true enlightenment. Then, of course, the bubble burst, so spectacularly that Japan has endured a slump for most of the past 12 years.

What has happened to the salaryman? He still drinks his tonic, and puts in the punishing hours. But warrior hero? Try tragic figure – a crumpled soul in a crumpled suit.

He still leaves for work at 7am, makes a long commute sardined into trains, and may not get home until 10pm. But there is little of the bushido, the spirit of the samurai, about the salaryman today. Like a reflection of his country, he is just hanging on grimly, hoping for better times but not sure how or when they will come.


July 23, 2012

Libya, Syria, and left Islamophobia

Filed under: Islamophobia,Libya,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Pepe Escobar’s inspiration

In his brilliant analysis of leftist hostility to the revolutions in Libya and Syria titled Blanket Thinkers, Robin Yassin-Kassab described the way that the Syrian rebels are viewed in those quarters:

They are also depicted as wild Muslims, bearded and hijabbed, who do not deserve democracy or rights because they are too backward to use them properly. Give them democracy and they’ll vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, and slaughter the Alawis and drive the Christians to Beirut.


This has been on my radar screen ever since the struggle against Qaddafi got off the ground, but Yassin-Kassab’s article persuaded me to investigate a bit further. Basically what seems to be taking place is a hatred for Islamism that is reminiscent of what we heard from Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman during the heights of the war in Iraq, but deployed on behalf of an “anti-imperialist” narrative.

Perhaps the most prominent exponent of left Islamophobia is Asia Times’s Pepe Escobar. In an article on Libya titled How al-Qaeda got to rule in Tripoli,  Abdelhakim Belhaj became an object of hate:

Abdelhakim Belhaj, aka Abu Abdallah al-Sadek, is a Libyan jihadi. Born in May 1966, he honed his skills with the mujahideen in the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

He’s the founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and its de facto emir – with Khaled Chrif and Sami Saadi as his deputies. After the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996, the LIFG kept two training camps in Afghanistan; one of them, 30 kilometers north of Kabul – run by Abu Yahya – was strictly for al-Qaeda-linked jihadis.

After 9/11, Belhaj moved to Pakistan and also to Iraq, where he befriended none other than ultra-nasty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – all this before al-Qaeda in Iraq pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and turbo-charged its gruesome practices.

(For what it is worth, Escobar’s article contains an ad for the Central Intelligence Agency. Talk about crowning ironies.)

Escobar adds that “In Iraq, Libyans happened to be the largest foreign Sunni jihadi contingent, only losing to the Saudis.” Well, how despicable, Libyans going to Iraq to fight against the American occupation. He also considers Belhaj a rather shifty sort, “not remotely interested in relinquishing control just to please NATO’s whims.” What an ingrate.

Not long after the overthrow of Qaddafi, left Islamophobes held up a magnifying glass to detect any evidence of Jihadist influence in the new Libya. Last November word went out that the al-Qaeda flag was flying over the Benghazi courthouse. Not surprisingly, this became a cause celebre for the rightwing but the vanguard of the “anti-imperialist” left got just as worked up. Voltairenet.org, a website devoted to 9/11 conspiracy-mongering and the defense of Qaddafi and al-Assad, alerted its readers through an article that included a graphic of the flag:

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the former Justice Minister of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya who became chairman of the National Transitional Council, announced the rebels’ intention to turn Libya  into an Islamic state and implement Sharia as the only law.

For some odd reason, the Libyan people were never clued in that they were about to willingly accept such a state of affairs. As it turned out, the vote for the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was a paltry 130,000 nationally, just 21.3%. Today’s Australian  explained the low total:

But another reason for the strong “liberal” turnout is the “blood” factor. “I am not giving my family’s votes to the MB. Two of my cousins died because of them,” Mohamed Abdul Hakim, a voter from Benghazi, told me. He agrees that Islam should be the source for legislation, and his wife wears a niqab. Nonetheless, he voted liberal: his cousins were killed in a confrontation in the 1990s, most likely between the Martyrs Movement (a small jihadist group operating in his neighborhood at the time) and Gaddafi’s forces.

But many average Libyans, including Hakim, do not distinguish between Islamist organisations and their histories. For them, all Islamists are “Ikhwan” (MB). The “stain” of direct involvement in armed action, coupled with fear of Taliban-like laws or a civil war like Algeria’s in the 1990’s harmed Islamists of all brands.

A third reason for the Islamists’ defeat had to do with their campaign rhetoric. “It is offensive to tell me that I have to vote for an Islamic party,” Jamila Marzouki, an Islamic studies graduate, told me. Marzouki voted liberal, despite believing that Islam should be the ultimate reference for Libyan laws. “In Libya, we are Muslims. They can’t take away my identity and claim that it’s only theirs.”

So much for Libya turning into a Taliban state.

Without skipping a beat, the dreadful Pepe Escobar now has Syria in his sights, using the same hackneyed analysis:

Syria, the new Libya

A Kalashnikov in Iraq, until recently, sold for US$100. Now it’s at least $1,000, and most probably $1,500 (those were the days when Sunnis joining the resistance in 2003 could buy a fake Kalashnikov made in Romenia [sic] for $20).

Destination of choice of the $1,500 Kalashnikov in 2012: Syria. Network: al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, also known as AQI. Recipients: infiltrated jihadis operating side-by-side with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Also shuttling between Syria and Iraq is car bombing and suicide bombing, as in two recent bombings in the suburbs of Damascus and the suicide bombing last Friday in Aleppo.

Who would have thought that what the House of Saud wants in Syria – an Islamist regime – is exactly what al-Qaeda wants in Syria?

Christopher Hitchens couldn’t have put it better.

For left Islamophobes, the idea of a secular, nationalistic and populist Syria serves as a kind of rallying point in the same way that “existing socialism” in the USSR once was for a gullible left, whether or not either proposition was true.

Syria Freedom Forever, an antidote to the stupidity found in Escobar’s columns, Global Research, MRZine, Voltairenet.com et al (Counterpunch fortunately never bought into this junk for the most part), had an article titled Understand the Syrian regime and the dialectics of the Syrian revolutionary process  that is most useful for separating the truth from bullshit.

It explains that al-Assad, just like Saddam Hussein, was not above catering to the needs of the Islamic clergy in the interests of wielding power Machiavelli-style:

The last important base of support for the Syrian regime is the high religious establishment of all sects, which has benefited the regime for the past twenty years and supported it since the beginning of the revolution. The Syrian regime and its security services established political and economic links with the religious establishment, especially from the Sunni community following the repression of the 1980s. The high religious establishments of all the sects have increasingly been presented by the regime as actors of the “Syrian civil society” in the past as soon as a foreign delegation would visit the country.

The State’s behavior these past years has been in total contradiction with the official picture of a secular country. A religious vocabulary appeared more often in political discourse, along with a massive increase in the building of religious sites from the eighties until now. These government measures were also accompanied by censorship of literary and artistic works, while promoting a religious literature filling more and more the shelves of libraries and Islamizing the field of higher education. This is true particularly in the humanities and expressed itself in the rather systematic referral to religious references of any scientific, social and cultural phenomenon. Around 10,000 mosques and hundreds of religious schools were built. More than 200 conferences headed by clerics were held in cultural centres of important towns during 2007.

Of course you wouldn’t know any of this if your reading material was limited to the Islamophobic left.

When you are dealing with a phobia, facts do little to change the mind of the stricken. No matter how many times you might have told Howard Hughes that washing one’s hands 2 or 3 times a day was sufficient, only 25 times would suffice. No matter how many times you tell the Islamophobic left that the purpose of the struggle in places like Libya and Syria is to get rid of an oppressive regime, it will not overcome the deep belief that the real purpose is to reestablish the Caliphate, sharia law and the cult of the suicide bomber.

Speaking for myself (and who else matters in the long run), this is what I think of when Islamic resistance to Bashar al-Assad is cited. I don’t find it threatening at all. In fact I am inspired by it:

July 21, 2012

What Alexander Cockburn meant to me

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

Returning to New York in 1979 after an abortive attempt at becoming an industrial worker in Kansas City as part of the SWP’s “turn”, I wanted to put as much distance between me and the left as possible. Keeping in mind that I was still loyal to the cult, the left was pretty much synonymous with the SWP.  When I rejoined the consulting company I left to go out to Kansas City, I asked around to see if anybody knew of an available apartment. When my boss told me that he changed his mind about renting a place on 91st and Third and that I could take it if I wanted, my first reaction was to almost turn the offer down. Why would I want to live among a bunch of yuppies in a neighborhood whose only real distinction was that Woody Allen lived there (you have to remember that he was still funny at the time)? Upon further reflection, I decided that the neighborhood would make sense given my state of mind. At least I wouldn’t be running into any SWP’ers.

I had plans back then to begin writing novels and enjoy New York’s cultural attractions. (I have long given up on the first option.) In order to keep track of what was happening in NY at the time, the Village Voice was still necessary reading. With film reviews by J. Hoberman and other informed pieces, the paper was worth the dollar or so it cost at the time. (Now it is free and correspondingly worth nothing.)

Alexander Cockburn had begun writing a “Press Clips” column for the Voice in 1973, a good 3 years after I had departed the city. He was still writing it in 1979 upon my return and I became addicted to it immediately. Having been used to the stodgy and dogmatic style of the Trotskyist press, it was a wonder to see someone who was both radical and fun to read. Cockburn also partnered with James Ridgeway to write a weekly column on politics. Many of their articles were collected in “Corruptions of Empire”, one of the best books ever to carry the Cockburn brand.

In 1982 Cockburn was suspended from the Voice for taking money from an Arab studies foundation. As a highly marketable journalist, Cockburn told the Voice to take their job and shove it. From there he went to the Nation Magazine, which like the Village Voice (most of the time) was worth reading.

I took out a subscription to the magazine for the express purpose of reading Cockburn and cancelled my subscription in 2010 after his column was cut back to one page. Around the same time I began subscribing to Harper’s, another venue for Cockburn. In August 1982, he wrote a critique of the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS that can be described as vintage Cockburn. It opens with the two centrist bores reporting from Galilee way back when:

ROBERT MACNEIL (voice over): A Galilean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and says the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?

MACNEIL: Good evening. The Roman procurator in Jerusalem is trying to decide whether a man regarded by many as a saint should be put to death. Pontius Pilate is being urged by civil libertarians to intervene in what is seen here in Rome as being basically a local dispute. Tonight, the crucifixion debate. Jim?

JIM LEHRER: Robin, the provinces of Judaea and Galilee have always been trouble spots, and this year is no exception. The problem is part religious, part political, and in many ways a mixture of both. The Jews believe in one god. Discontent in the province has been growing, with many local businessmen complaining about the tax burden. Terrorism, particularly in Galilee, has been on the increase. In recent months, a carpenter’s son from the town of Nazareth has been attracting a large following with novel doctrines and faith healing. He recently entered Jerusalem amid popular acclaim, but influential Jewish leaders fear his power. Here in Alexandria the situation is seen as dangerous. Robin?

I have taken the liberty to put the entire article on my website. Read it to see how good Cockburn was when his juices were flowing.

I became such a huge Cockburn fan that I even began subscribing to the Wall Street Journal just to read his once every 3-week column (triweekly?), a token to diversity that would never be allowed under Murdoch’s ownership. Taking advantage of one of my most valued benefits at Columbia University, I looked into the WSJ archives to find something good by Alexander. Ironically, one of the best pieces was a blast at Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which along with the McNeil-Lehrer Snooze Hour was considered necessary viewing by educated middle-class Americans. Written in 1990, it described his appearance on a show devoted to the collapse of the USSR. Needless to say, Cockburn was feisty as ever:

At the ABC studios they make me up and sit me down. The drill with Mr. Koppel is that you look into a camera and listen to you earphone. You can’t see what’s happening. You have to keep looking at the camera because you don’t know when Mr. Koppel, the only person who can see all the people on the show, who controls everything, is going to call on you. Swivel your eyes away from the camera and millions will think you have something to hide.

Suddenly we’re off. I can hear the soundtrack of some footage; of people hammering down the Wall, denouncing communism. Then I hear Mr. Koppel saying, “. . . the state of distress in which Communism finds itself. . . . seems easier for some Soviets to accept than for . . . left-wingers like Alexander Cockburn or leaders of the American Communist Party like Angela Davis.” So it’s a setup: The viewers have been invited to watch scenes of collapsing communism, then here’s Mr. Koppel cutting to the last dinosaurs, clanking into the studio dragging the ball and chain of dead, bad ideas. Had Tracy Day told Mr. Koppel the lines I was thinking along? Had Mr. Koppel decided to shackle me and Prof. Davis as gauleiters of the gulag, offset by the virtuous Mr. Sturua, symbol of New Thinking and penitence for the past?

This was the trend of the show. Mr. Koppel got increasingly testy. Why, he asked, did I keep bringing up capitalism? We were meant to be talking about communism. It became a dialogue of the deaf. I said in order to understand why millions of people around the world are still fired with socialist ideals you have to understand that if actually existing communism was and is abhorrent to some, actually existing capitalism is abhorrent to others.

I was going to add that on the same May Day that Russian workers were booing the Soviet leaders, workers in the Philippines were demonstrating against the regime and the U.S. bases, and in South Korea striking shipyard workers were still battling police.

No time for this though. By now Mr. Koppel was saying that I was putting words into his mouth and Prof. Davis was trying to explain that capitalism was not working too well for black people here in the U.S. and Mr. Sturua was saying that Karl Marx was right when he said that theory was gray but green the tree of life. From the corner of my eye I saw a copy of Business Week featuring on its cover the best-paid executive of 1989, Craig McCaw, weighing in with $53.9 million. Why didn’t I just hold it up to the camera and say that against salaries like this, how could the ideals of socialism ever die? But it was all over. I didn’t even have time to tell Mr. Sturua that Goethe, not Marx, said the thing about the green tree. At least he had Marx associated with living things.

I realize now why I loved Cockburn so much. His business about “Mr. Koppel cutting to the last dinosaurs, clanking into the studio dragging the ball and chain of dead, bad ideas” embraces the idea of being unfashionable. Alexander Cockburn was never interested in being accepted by the political tastemakers. Wherever he wrote, from the Village Voice to House and Garden, he always told it like it is–unrepentantly.

As leftists in the U.S. and other prosperous countries in the First World, our problem has never been repression although we have always had to watch out for Cointelpro, getting fired from a university or a newspaper for having unpopular ideas, and other such inconveniences. It has always been about refusing to bow to the pressure of the intellectual and ideological hegemony of the ruling class. It is so easy to get that cushy job in academia or in the bourgeois press for just playing along. You can even refer to Marx just as long as you don’t try to make his ideas too relevant to what’s going on the world.

Cockburn always put his ideas on the line. He was courageous and he had integrity by the railroad carload. I can honestly say that I only decided to continue with radical politics in the early 80s because of his writing. I can also say that in my own crude and muddling fashion, I have tried to write like him. Granted, my half-assed Bard College education could never compete with the kind of training he must have gotten at Oxford but at least I was encouraged by his example to speak my mind and let the chips fall where they may.

Even when I disagreed with Alexander Cockburn, I always respected the courage of his convictions. He did not give a shit if the entire left disagreed with him on global warming. He had made up his mind and would not budge an inch. With so much groupthink at work on the left, it was essential to its health to have a legendary journalist not to be afraid of being a minority of one. If we are ever going to have a revolutionary movement in the U.S. capable of going up against the most powerful ruling class in history, we will need activists with the courage of their convictions. As Karl Marx once said, we need ruthless criticism of the existing order. I have no idea what words will appear on this great journalist’s tombstone (or if he will be cremated) but “ruthless criticism” are the words I will always see as his epitaph.

Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:40 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition July 21-23, 2012

Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

Farewell, Alex, My Friend


Our friend and comrade Alexander Cockburn died last night in Germany, after a fierce two-year long battle against cancer. His daughter Daisy was at his bedside.

Alex kept his illness a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of us knew how terribly sick he truly was. He didn’t want the disease to define him. He didn’t want his friends and readers to shower him with sympathy. He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done. Alex wanted to keep living his life right to the end. He wanted to live on his terms. And he wanted to continue writing through it all, just as his brilliant father, the novelist and journalist Claud Cockburn had done. And so he did. His body was deteriorating, but his prose remained as sharp, lucid and deadly as ever.

In one of Alex’s last emails to me, he patted himself on the back (and deservedly so) for having only missed one column through his incredibly debilitating and painful last few months. Amid the chemo and blood transfusions and painkillers, Alex turned out not only columns for CounterPunch and The Nation and First Post, but he also wrote a small book called Guillotine and finished his memoirs, A Colossal Wreck, both of which CounterPunch plans to publish over the course of the next year.

Alex lived a huge life and he lived it his way. He hated compromise in politics and he didn’t tolerate it in his own life. Alex was my pal, my mentor, my comrade. We joked, gossiped, argued and worked together nearly every day for the last twenty years. He leaves a huge void in our lives. But he taught at least two generations how to think, how to look at the world, how to live a life of resistance. So, the struggle continues and we’re going to remain engaged. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the coming days and weeks, CounterPunch will publish many tributes to Alex from his friends and colleagues. But for this day, let us remember him through a few images taken by our friend Tao Ruspoli.

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