Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2014

The Obedient Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition Feb 28-Mar 02, 2014

John Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”

Killing Trotsky


Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/28/killing-trotsky/

February 27, 2014

Ukraine is not a chess piece

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 2:38 am


Q. Some people in the western left focus on the right wing and fascists; others seem to ignore them completely. Why?

A. This is more about the western left, and the stereotypes it is so often satisfied with, than about what is going on in Ukraine.

People who see the world in terms of a geopolitical battle between the USA and NATO on one side, and Russia, among others, on the other side, look at Ukraine as a chess piece in this conflict. To them, what is most important is not the development of social and labour movements – in Ukraine, Russia or anywhere else – but which side Ukraine takes in this battle (the west vs Russia). They can not get their heads round the idea of middle class or working class Ukrainians seeing positives in Europe, as opposed to Russia. The answer, they are convinced, must be that Maidan can not be a mass movement in which right wing populists and fascists have gained influence, and therefore it must be a movement inspired by the right, supported materially and ideologically by the USA.

An especially crude version of this view is here. (“In an attempt to pry Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence, the US-EU-NATO alliance has, not for the first time, allied itself with fascists”, etc.) Some of these presumptions were reflected, too, in Seumas Milne’s article in the Guardian here.

On the other side are social democratic supporters of the European ideal, whatever that means to them. They believe that their job is to help bring Ukraine into the European capitalist fold. This meant turning a blind eye to, or playing down, the right wing and fascists’ violence, and emphasising that Maidan is pro-European and therefore inherently progressive. Variants of such views are effectively challenged by Volodymyr Ishchenko of the journal Spil’ne here and here.

There is a great deal of history running through these arguments. I was depressed to see, on Maidan, flags and symbols of the wartime Ukrainian Resistance Army (UPA), some of whose leaders collaborated with the Nazis, and some of whose detachments participated in ethnic cleansing against Jews, Poles and Russians. That symbolism sticks in my gullet; perhaps it’s my Jewish family background. (I felt even sicker in 2010, when the former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, pinned a medal on the grandson of UPA leader Stepan Bandera, saying, in effect, “screw any discussion of history among Ukrainians, let’s appeal to the crudest nationalist sentiments”.)

Socialists need to get a historical handle on Ukrainian nationalism. But in order to do so, in my view, we need first to filter out the heavy legacy of Soviet ideology, which still corrodes the 21st century labour movement. That ideology cast the tyrannical Stalinist dictatorship, which in 1932-33 presided over a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, as “socialist”, and all Ukrainian nationalists – whether or not they had any connection with UPA or sympathy for its wartime dealings with the Nazis – as “fascists”. All this is behind some of the stereotypes.

When Yanukovich said he was overthrown by a “fascist coup”, he might even have believed it. In terms of analysis, surely we can do better.


February 26, 2014

Ukraine, Stalin, Hitler, and the American liberal

Filed under: Fascism,Stalinism,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

Famine: Collecting corpses in a village in eastern Ukraine, 1933

It has been a long time since I considered the contradictions of Ukrainian history but the widespread belief that Ukraine is about to become the modern-day equivalent of the Third Reich is evidence that many on the left have little interest in the beleaguered nation’s history.

Furthermore, I continue to be amazed by the failure of some leftists to put rightwing Ukrainian nationalism in context, as if the toppling of Lenin statues was prima facie evidence of the need to have backed the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. For such people the fact that President Putin backed him was grounds in and of itself to oppose the protest movement, as if neoliberal Russia had anything to do with the USSR.

For many Ukrainians, the USSR was an oppressor. Like other nations promised self-determination in the early days of the Russian Revolution, it soon discovered that Stalin had plans to reinstitute Czarist domination under the guise of building socialism. In a 1939 article titled “Problem of the Ukraine”, Leon Trotsky summed up the relationship between the Kremlin and its vassal state:

The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence. To the totalitarian bureaucracy, Soviet Ukraine became an administrative division of an economic unit and a military base of the USSR. To be sure, the Stalin bureaucracy erects statues to Shevchenko but only in order more thoroughly to crush the Ukrainian people under their weight and to force it to chant paeans in the language of Kobzar to the rapist clique in the Kremlin.

The Kobzar, by the way, were traditional Ukrainian poet-musicians who were forced to perform pro-Stalin songs.

That, of course, was not the greatest offense, nor was the de facto imposition of Russian language on a subject people. What sears in Ukrainian memories was the 1932-33 famine that was the inevitable outcome of forced collectivization. By some estimates, the number of deaths was as great as 7.5 million.

For unabashed fans of Stalin like Grover Furr, the famine as hoax looms large as a talking point—on the same plane as the guilt of Leon Trotsky as a Nazi spy. On his website he has a Village Voice article from 1988 by Jeff Coplon titled “In Search of a Soviet Holocaust: A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right” that I would hardly use as an excuse for Stalin worship, considering its admission that:

There was indeed a famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It appears likely that hundreds of thousands, possibly one or two million, Ukrainians died — the minority from starvation, the majority from related diseases. By any scale, this is an enormous toll of human suffering. By general consensus, Stalin was partially responsible. By any stretch of an honest imagination, the tragedy still falls short of genocide.

Yet, the general thrust of the article was to justify Stalin’s acts as necessary for the country’s great leap forward using the old “you need to break some eggs to make an omelet” argument:

In this context, collectivization was more than a vehicle for a cheap and steady grain supply to the state. It was truly a “revolution from above,” a drastic move towards socialism, and an epochal change in the mode of production. There were heavy casualties on both sides — hundreds of thousands of kulaks (rich peasants) deported to the north, thousands of party activists assassinated.

I doubt that Coplon was sufficiently versed in Soviet history to understand that forced collectivization had such an adverse effect on the economy that some experts count this as a major impetus to perestroika, the policy that would eventually lead to the collapse of the USSR. This was Coplon’s first and last excursion into Soviet history. Mostly his archive consists of articles about rodeos, basketball, etc.

In terms of whether there was a “genocide” or not, clearly there was not if your understanding of the term is based on Hitler’s systematic murder of Jews, men, women and children alike, merely for the crime of being Jewish. But most genocides are not like this. Indeed, some are associated with nation-building efforts that the dominant group deems a necessary evil, like Andrew Jackson’s “trail of tears” that left the Cherokees on the verge of extinction or the Turkish removal of the Armenians from their territory, seen by most Turks as a defensive measure against imperialism.

The one thing that caught my eye in Copol’s article, my first reading of the piece since it came out 36 years ago, was the invocation of the authority of the N.Y. Times reporter Walter Duranty, an early exponent of Coplon’s brand of revisionism. His critics, like Robert Conquest, were guilty of “red-baiting”. Now I am the last person on earth to take Conquest as an authority on Soviet history but this is the same Walter Duranty who told N.Y. Times readers that the Moscow Trials were legitimate.

Coplon identifies one Robert Green as a major figure in the Ukraine famine hoax. He was “a phony journalist and escaped convict who provided famine material to the profascist Hearst chain in 1935.” Just to make sure that his Village Voice readers were as impressed with the N.Y. Times’s apparent support of his argument, he invokes a publication whose liberal credentials were as authentic as the Village Voice’s: the Nation Magazine. He writes that “Green was exposed by The Nation and several New York dailies by 1935.”

He fails to mention, however, that the Nation’s ace reporter covering the Soviet Union was none other than Louis Fischer, a long-time Stalinist who initially started out expressing deep concern over the impact of forced collectivization but by 1933 had swung over totally to backing the Kremlin.

His May 2, 1934 article charmingly titled “The Tragedy of Trotzky” will give you a flavor of how he saw things:

One must judge the actual situation in the U. S. S. R. And a dispassionate study has to yield this verdict: notwithstanding the horrible cancer of bureaucracy which robs the Soviet organism of much of its spiritual vitality, the destruction of the kulaks, the agrarian collectives, costly in organization and imperfect in operation though they have been, the state industries with all their inefficiency, and the huge mass of new construction are tremendous anti- capitalist facts. They also represent seven-league strides toward socialism.

By 1945 Fischer had become disillusioned by Stalin and decided to quit the Nation over editor Freda Kirchwey’s continuing infatuation with the Soviet tyrant. He would go on to write a chapter in the “God that Failed” collection alongside Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler and others. He also taught Soviet studies at Princeton until his death in 1970.

It seems that Russophile habits die hard at the Nation. Stephen A. Cohen, the husband of editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and a long-time Sovietologist now teaching at NYU, has worked himself into quite a lather over events in the Ukraine. Although he has not written anything about the Ukraine, he has been popping up on radio and television to make points that will be familiar to anybody who has been reading Global Research or Moon of Alabama. On Democracy Now, he rambled on–a bit incoherently in my view:

So what Obama needs to say is, “We deplore what the people in the streets are doing when they attack the police, the law enforcement official. And we also don’t like the people who are writing on buildings ‘Jews live here,'” because these forces, these quasi-fascist forces—let’s address this issue, because the last time I was on your broadcast, you found some guy somewhere who said there was none of this there. All right. What percent are the quasi-fascists of the opposition? Let’s say they’re 5 percent. I think they’re more, but let’s give them the break, 5 percent. But we know from history that when the moderates lose control of the situation, they don’t know what to do. The country descends in chaos.

Who knows? Maybe the stream-of-consciousness on display in his remarks above and his failure to write much about the unfolding events indicates a flagging intellect, one that might very well have precipitated his descent from the august environs of Princeton to lowly NYU.

Now in terms of the fascism question, nobody can deny that there are forces in the Ukraine that can be described by that label. To some extent, this is part and parcel of tendencies throughout the former Soviet empire. How Cohen can wring his hands over their presence in the Ukraine but ignore them in Russia constitutes something of a mystery. In 2005, the BBC reported that 19 Russian parliamentarians lent their names to a letter addressed to the country’s prosecutor general. It compared Judaism to Satanism, accused Jews of ritual murder and called for all Jewish organizations in Russia to be investigated and banned.

There’s also the undeniable fact that many Ukrainian nationalists welcomed the Nazi invasion.

John A. Armstrong describes the collaboration between Nazis and Ukrainiab nationalists  in “Ukrainian Nationalism 1939-1945”:

Local Ukrainian nationalists, most of whom were members of, or sympathetic to, the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists], were organized and excited to more extreme action by OUN leaders who had been living as émigrés in Germany and who had been dispatched to the Carpatho-Ukraine by the OUN directory on the advice of the German intelligence service. A major part of their activities was devoted to forming a para-military organization, the Carpathian Sich, which, they hoped, would form the nucleus of an army of an all-Ukrainian state.”

When Hitler began his invasion of the USSR, the OUN could be counted on as an ally. In the context of the 1930s, anti-Soviet nationalist movements would have had an enormous affinity with each other, especially the Ukrainian movement that defended a people who had absorbed more punishment than most from the Soviet state. The original liberal and Christian ideology of the 1920s became replaced with an outspoken fascist belief in the purity of the Ukrainian nation. One OUN leader, according to Armstrong, professed, “Nationalism is based on feelings, which is carried by the racial blood.”

OUN leader Richard Iarii was in constant contact with Nazi Admiral Canaris and the Abwehr. In the summer of 1939, OUN militia leader Sushko had organized an auxiliary to the Wehrmacht in its approaching invasion of Poland. Since the Ukrainians were a subject nation in Poland, the nationalists looked forward to war between their Nazi benefactors and the British-backed Polish state.

When war finally broke out between the Nazis and Soviet Union, the Ukrainian nationalists were tossed aside. Their racial ideology precluded any long-lasting alliance between them and what they regarded as an inferior Slavic race. This did not prevent Ukrainian leaders from initially welcoming the invading troops. Reverend John Hyrn’okh, a chaplain of a pro-Nazi Ukrainian militia, wrote a pastoral letter stating that “We greet the victorious German Army as deliverer from the enemy. We render our homage to the government which has been erected. We recognize Mr. Iaroslav Stets’ko [Nazi collaborator] as Head of the State Administration of the Ukraine.”

Once the Nazis established control over the Ukraine, they began killing Jews and non-Jews alike. Estimates run up to 3 million non-Jews and 950,000 Jews. That some Ukrainians can today think of honoring Stepan Bandera, the head of the OUN only reveals the depth of the moral and political degradation that was bequeathed by Stalinism. When the hatred toward the USSR was so all-consuming, it apparently became possible for some elites to build alliances with a mass murderer whose real goal was to exterminate the Ukrainians in order to create an Aryan outpost of the Third Reich.

The worries that contemporary versions of the OUN like Svoboda seek to impose fascist rule over Ukraine poses certain obvious questions. If they are the cat’s paw of imperialism, what kind of imperialism is it? Does the European Union constitute a fascist threat to the Ukraine? If there’s anything that you can say about the EU, it is that the prevailing ideology is one of neoliberal democracy rather than the blood/race irrationalism of traditional fascism—not to speak of the statist control of the economy that reigned under Hitler’s “national socialism”. The obvious rulers of the EU in Germany have little use for “Mein Kampf”; they rely instead on Milton Friedman’s books and Margaret Thatcher’s speeches.

If anything, the ill-conceived romance of the Ukrainian masses with the EU has to do with a notion that corruption will be eliminated and that oligarchic control over the economy will come to an end. Based on this report, this is as about a foolish a notion as thinking that the invading Wehrmacht would treat Ukrainians as master-race brethren:

Gerry Rice, a spokesman for the International Monetary Fund, which would have to provide the billions of dollars in urgently needed credit, issued a statement on Monday saying only, “We are talking to all interested parties.”

The Obama administration said it was prepared to provide financial assistance beyond that from the I.M.F., but it did not say how much.

“This support can complement an I.M.F. program by helping to make reforms easier and by putting Ukraine in a position to invest more in health and education to help develop Ukraine’s human capital and strengthen its social safety net,” the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters in Washington.

The I.M.F. has made clear it is unwilling to help Ukraine without a commitment from the country to undertake painful austerity measures and other restructuring. Mr. Yanukovych’s resistance to those demands was a principal reason he backed away from a trade deal with Europe and sought help from Russia instead.

Given the animosity of the new Ukrainian government toward Russia, Ivan Tchakarov, an analyst with Citibank, said that Ukraine could turn only to the West for help, and would inevitably face demands for tough reforms and a near-certain recession as a result.

“Assuming that Russia will pass, it will be up to the I.M.F. and E.U. to pick up the tab,” Mr. Tchakarov said. “The I.M.F. will impose hard constraints on the economy, and these will most probably mean a recession in 2014.”

Still, Mr. Tchakarov noted that there would be long-term benefits to Ukraine’s undertaking desperately needed measures, like ending subsidies of gas prices and cutting the thickets of business regulations that weigh down the economy. These actions could potentially allow it to emerge far stronger, like its neighbors Poland and the Baltic countries, he said.

–NY Times, “Amid Political Upheaval, Ukraine Faces Dire Need for Economic Help”, Feb. 25 2014

February 25, 2014

Everything you know about Ukraine is wrong

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 1:01 am

Everything you know about Ukraine is wrong

On February 24, 2014


Although I’m deep into the reporting of my next story about the Silicon Valley Techtopus, it’s hard for me not to get distracted by events in Ukraine and Russia.

I haven’t lived in that part of the world since the Kremlin ran me out of town, so I’m not going to pretend that I know as much as those on the ground there. Still, I’ve been driven nuts by the avalanche of overconfident ignorance that stands for analysis or commentary on the wild events there. A lethal ignorance, a virtuous ignorance.

Virtuous ignorance about world affairs used to be the exclusive domain of neo-con pundits, but now it’s everywhere, especially rampant on the counter-consensus side — nominally my own side, but an increasingly shitty side to be on.

Nearly everyone here in the US tries to frame and reify Ukraine’s dynamic to fit America-centric spats. As such, Ukraine’s problems are little more than a propaganda proxy war where our own political fights are transferred to Ukraine’s and Russia’s context, warping the truth to score domestic spat points. That’s nothing new, of course, but it’s still jarring to watch how the “new media” counter-consensus is warping and misrepresenting reality in Ukraine about as crudely as the neocons and neoliberals used to warp and Americanize the political realities there back when I first started my Moscow newspaper, The eXile.

So, yes, I wanted to comment on a few simplifications/misconceptions about Ukraine today:

1. The protesters are not “virtuous anti-Putin freedom fighters,” nor are they “Nazis and US puppets”

In fact, the people who are protesting or supporting the protesters are first and foremost sick of their shitty lives in a shitty country they want to make better—a country where their fates are controlled by a tiny handful of nihilistic oligarchs and Kremlin overlords, and their political frontmen. It’s first and foremost a desire to gain some control over their fate. Anger at Kremlin power over Ukraine is not necessarily anti-Russian—although the further west you go in Ukraine, the more this does become about nationalism, and the further east you go—including Crimea and Odessa—the more the politics are a fearful reaction against west-Ukraine nationalism.

This is kind of obvious to anyone who’s spent time in that part of the world. I’ll quote from Jake Rudnitsky’s great piece about the Orange Revolution published in The eXile nearly a decade ago, which aptly describes both what an awful political figure Yanukovych is, what role the US played in that “revolution,” and the aspirations of most Ukrainians who took to the streets. It’s amazing how little has changed in this dynamic:

“Almost all of Ukraine’s oligarchs are from the east or Kiev, and they almost exclusively lined up in support of Yanukovych, a Donetsk native. There are a few exceptions, notably Petro Poroshenko, the owner of car and candy factories and a ship-building yard. He also owns Channel 5, which was an invaluable tool in helping Yushchenko [the pro-West leader of the Orange Revolution] compete….A large part of [Channel 5] programming consists of watching Yanukovych’s team make asses of themselves. They often repeat a speech Yanukovych gave where he was gesturing with his fingers in the air, “paltsami,” a classic bandit gesture. Still, the biggest and most powerful clans are still behind Yanukovych, who is their man.

“Yanukovych is a truly loathsome character. Most Ukrainians agree that if a more palatable candidate had been given the nearly unlimited access to “administrative resources” that Yanukovych had, he would have won handily. But Yanukovych twice served jail time in the Soviet Union, he has no charisma, and is obviously a tool of powerful Russian and Ukrainian interests. Yushchenko, on the other hand, is considered by most western Ukrainians to be something between Gandhi and Christ, while many people in the east worry he has it in for everyone who speaks Russian. Many people who voted for Yanukovych did so out of suspicion of Yushchenko, not because they like Yanukovych (except perhaps in his home turf, Donetsk).”

As for the US role in the Orange Revolution, what Rudnitsky wrote in 2004 applies to the US/EU role today:

“The protests have come under fire as an American-funded coup, particularly in the Russian media. And there’s some truth to it — the US has been bringing in Serbs and Georgians experienced in non-violent revolution to train Ukrainians for at least a year. One exit poll — the one finding most heavily in favor of Yushchenko — was funded by the US. The smoothness and professionalism of the protest, from the instant availability of giant blocks of Styrofoam to pitch the tents on to the network of food distribution and medical points, is probably a result of American logistical planning. It’s certainly hard to imagine Ukrainians having their act together that well. The whole orange theme and all those ready-made flags also smack of American marketing concepts, particularly Burson-Marstellar.

“But the crowds in Kiev, which can swell up to a million on a good day and are always in the hundreds of thousands, are there out of their own homegrown sense of outrage, not because some State Department bureaucrats willed them there. The meetings that happen every day in virtually every city in Ukraine (and in literally every western Ukraine village) are not the result of American propaganda. Rather, they are the result of the democratic awakening of a trampled-on people who refuse to be screwed by corrupt politicians again.”

full article

February 24, 2014

James Bloodworth and the real nightmare threatening Venezuela

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 2:20 pm

James Bloodworth: enthusiastic over Predator drones and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

A few days ago someone asked me for my views on Venezuela:

As to the Bolivarian Revolution in general, I’ve become more critical about a lot of aspects and negative side effects (e.g. lackluster and halfhearted performance on fostering cooperative industries and community efforts to self-govern in general, official corruption, crime, well-intentioned belligerence towards opposition media that was easy to portray as attacks on press freedom, etc.). In short, I felt there were areas in which Chavez went too far, and others not nearly far enough.

As to the recent events (the currency issues and protests/demonstrations by the opposition, and the government’s retaliation, I was wondering if you had an opinion on them, or were planning to write about them anytime soon?

I have to confess that I haven’t been paying that much attention to Venezuela for the past three years since the Arab Spring began. After Hugo Chavez fell in line with Cuba and took up the cause of Qaddafi and al-Assad, I felt totally alienated. With respect to Cuba, my sense of disappointment was so acute that I abandoned a project to complete a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal to Sam Farber’s idiotic new book. For some leftists, the Venezuelan and Cuban benediction of the Syrian torture states was the green light to begin operating as a Baathist propaganda outlet.

Even if Venezuela had not joined the Baathist cause, I probably would have begun paying less attention to what was looking less and less like “21st century socialism” and more and more like an institutionalized welfare state. For some on the left, the appearance of “communes” and ritualized condemnations of capitalism and imperialism was enough to make them believe that Venezuela was on the brink of a revolution. After nearly 15 years of Chavista rule, I simply stopped believing that the ruling party was ready to abolish private property, at least in the commanding heights of the economy. With a state-owned oil sector that could serve as a source of revenue for socially useful projects such as free health care and education, why would the government attack a bourgeoisie that seemed reconciled to the status quo? After all, without a Soviet Union to rely on, the agenda for socialist revolution in the periphery was put on hold for the foreseeable future.

It has only been with the recent escalation of street battles and a steady stream of propaganda in the liberal press that I have decided to pay closer attention to the unfolding events. When a FB friend who has been involved with solidarity with the Syrian revolution began writing on behalf of the anti-Maduro protests, I asked him for a reference to an article that took up their cause but only one that was written by a leftist. He referred me to an article that appeared in The Independent by one James Bloodworth with the lurid title of The left has a blind spot on Venezuela. When will it acknowledge that Chavez’s socialist dream has turned into a nightmare?

Since the FB friend is Pakistani, I felt some disappointment given Bloodworth’s support for Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. Anybody who is okay with wedding parties being blown to bits from behind a console in an air-conditioned bunker in New Mexico is not to be trusted when it comes to the fate of Venezuelans.

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 6.38.14 AM

This was not my first encounter with Bloodworth. Back in September 2011, he wrote an article for Jacobin on The Cult of Che that obviously fit in with the social democratic orientation of its publisher, a 23-year-old fellow named Bhaskar Sunkara. Not much long after Jacobin got settled in ideologically, it became a virtual fountain of Baathist propaganda, no doubt inspired by contributing editor Max Ajl, a graduate student filled with loathing for Syrian revolutionaries and deep nostalgia for Muammar Qaddafi.

As it turned out, Bloodworth used the same talking points as Sam Farber on Cuba. In my article on the twosome titled Was Che a Stalinist, I called attention to Bloodworth’s highly questionable endorsement of a character who practically defines Islamophobia:

When asked by [Norm] Geras what he was reading at the time, Bloodworth responded, “Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’m quite embarrassed that I haven’t read this already.” One suspects that if Bloodworth had been asked to name his favorite blog, he might have answered Pam Geller’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Turning to Bloodworth’s article, I realized how out of touch I was with current events in Venezuela. He stated:

Unfortunately, supporters of the Chavez/Maduro government appear to be marooned in 2002, when a right-wing coup temporarily overthrew the then president Hugo Chavez. They are still of the belief that the media in Venezuela is overwhelmingly right wing and that the government is surrounded by hostile forces seeking to undermine the socialist revolution.

Gosh, I did not know that. I guess I was marooned back in 2002. After pacing around my apartment wondering what had gone wrong, I decided to take a look at the situation of the Venezuelan television stations that were known to me not only as bastions of anti-Chavista sentiment but activists in the coup. What had happened? Had the government marched in and nationalized the TV stations? Was an iron-fisted Leninist dictatorship unfolding? I was reminded of what Lenin said about the bourgeois press as recounted by John Reed in Chapter XI of The Ten Days that Shook the World:

We Bolsheviki have always said that when we reached a position of power we would close the bourgeois press. To tolerate the bourgeois newspapers would mean to cease being a Socialist. When one makes a Revolution, one cannot mark time; one must always go forward-or go back. He who now talks about the ‘freedom of the Press’ goes backward, and halts our headlong course toward Socialism.

Gosh-darn, had Venezuelan Bolsheviki marched in with their jackboots and seized the TV stations? Why hadn’t anybody clued me in? Maybe that 21st century socialism thing was finally kicking in, like time-released medication.

Well, the reality is more complicated. Bloodworth refers to the Venezuelan status quo as “an ostensibly socialist one.” What happened to the anti-Chavista press actually has much more to do with the capitalist marketplace than Bolsheviki terror.

In one instance, there was a clear-cut case of state intervention. RCTV was denied a license renewal in 2006 because of its key role in supporting the coup 4 years earlier. As might be expected, enemies of Hugo Chavez screamed bloody murder. After the coup was defeated by a mass mobilization, Chavez returned to power—something that RCTV decided was not newsworthy. Instead of carrying news reports about Hugo Chavez’s reinstatement, they aired Pretty Woman on a nonstop basis, hoping evidently that would get the masses’ minds off the fate of the nation. Frankly, I find the prospect of watching Julia Roberts continuously tantamount to the torture meted out to prisoners in Guantanamo.

Such cavalier disregard for the mandate of a licensed television station led John Dinges, Columbia University journalism school professor, to comment:

What RCTV did simply can’t be justified under any stretch of journalistic principles…. When a television channel simply fails to report, simply goes off the air during a period of national crisis, not because they’re forced to, but simply because they don’t agree with what’s happening, you’ve lost your ability to defend what you do on journalistic principles.

The other two pro-coup television stations went through a somewhat different evolution. Simon Romero, a typical NY Timesman with a vitriolic hatred for the Venezuelan government, explained how CEO Gustavo A. Cisneros decided to take his Venevisión in a new direction in a July 5, 2007 article. It turns out that the bottom line mattered more than ideology:

Three years ago, the media mogul Gustavo A. Cisneros was a leader of Venezuela’s opposition and his television network, Venevisión, regularly lambasted President Hugo Chávez.

So antagonistic were relations that Mr. Chávez accused him of conspiring to topple him. Government agents raided Mr. Cisneros’s ranch, fishing camp and offices.

The tensions were resolved only after former President Jimmy Carter, a longtime friend of Mr. Cisneros, brokered a meeting between the men in 2004 before a referendum to determine whether President Chávez should be recalled from office.

Today, as more details of that encounter emerge, Mr. Cisneros, who sits at the helm of a family fortune estimated at $6 billion, has become a target of the same opposition he once championed. Venevisión, critics say, is now positioned to benefit from Mr. Chávez’s recent decision to push the station’s main rival, RCTV, off the public airwaves.

Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas program at the Carter Center, said the meeting was part of a broader effort by Mr. Carter to ease tension between Mr. Chávez and private media groups

Mr. Carter put Mr. Chávez at ease by discussing their shared military background, according to people briefed on the meeting. (Mr. Carter had attended the United States Naval Academy; Mr. Chávez is a former lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan Army.)

At the meeting, according to Mr. Cisneros, Mr. Chávez compared his social programs to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I thought the reference to FDR was quite telling. Once you get past the anti-Communist hysteria about the Bolivarian revolution, you will discover that decisive sectors of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie see Chavista rule as quite compatible with their capital accumulation goals.

While the pro-Chavista left pins its hopes on a possible socialist transformation of Venezuela, I tend to see a continuing balancing act between the interests of the masses and the big bourgeoisie. The Financial Times, one of the more sophisticated and class-conscious foundation stones of the bourgeois press, advised its readers on December 3, 2008 that “Boligarchs” were quite comfortable with “socialist” Venezuela:

A new business elite is profiting since the industry shutdown and failed putsch of 2002, reports Benedict Mander

Ten years ago, Wilmer Ruperti was just another ambitious businessman. Now, as Hugo Chávez marks a decade in power as Venezuela’s president, Mr Ruperti is a billionaire shipping tycoon and one of the richest men in the country.

Many of Mr Ruperti’s peers claim that his success is owed to more than his business acumen. He has been branded a quintessential “boligarch”, one of a new breed of Venezuelan business magnates. They are said to enjoy close relations with Mr Chávez’s “Bolivarian” government, named after Simón Bolivar, South America’s 19th-century independence hero.

Mr Ruperti says he has been castigated for his role in breaking the infamous oil industry shutdown in 2002-03, which was engineered by Mr Chávez’s opponents, many of them business leaders, who were trying to topple his government.

After making oil tankers available to the government, thereby enabling the president to survive the opposition’s attempt to cut off his key revenue source, oil exports, Mr Ruperti was well positioned to win future shipping contracts with the state oil company, PDVSA, at a time when others were excluded.

“It was a big decision. Normally I don’t gamble like that,” says Mr Ruperti, who admits it paid off. “But really I was just complying with my contract.”

The final television station to be separated from the opposition was Globovision. Without a trace of irony, Huffington Post—a snarling enemy of President Maduro—described how the station succumbed to the Venezuelan version of the Bolsheviki:

The last remaining television station critical of Venezuela’s government is being sold to an insurance company owner who is apparently friendly with the ruling socialists, its owners announced Monday, following an unrelenting official campaign to financially strangle the broadcaster through regulatory pressure.

Excuse me? An insurance company owner “friendly with the ruling socialists” decides to buy a takeover-ripe TV station and presumably run it as a profit-making venture? What exactly does this have to do with dictatorial rule? Isn’t the right to buy and sell enterprises sacrosanct under the free enterprise system?

It is hard to say whether RCTV or Globovision was more of a disgrace to journalism. The station once played interviews of distraught prison mothers 269 times over four days and added the sound of gunfire to the reports. I think that this would be too much even for Roger Ailes.

The insurance company owner is one Juan Domingo Cordero. He paired up with Raul Gorrin, another insurance tycoon. Like the Boligarchs alluded to above, they have thrown in their lot with a government that is committed to protecting their interests as well as those of the ordinary working person or peasant. Good luck, I say.

It is hard for me to get worked up over a tycoon buying a TV station or newspaper. Ever since I was a young man, a lifetime ago, I have seen the same sort of takeover in the USA, always at my expense.

–Martin Peretz bought the New Republic and turned a once proud liberal magazine into a mailed fist for the state of Israel, contra funding in Nicaragua and other sordid causes.

–Rupert Murdoch bought both the Village Voice and the NY Post in NY and destroyed their journalistic integrity. What would have happened to me if I decided to throw Molotov cocktails to protest this turn of events? I wouldn’t have been thrown in jail. I would have been thrown under the jail.

Now there’s not much point in me recapitulating all the points that have been made about those trying to remove Maduro from office. All you need to do is go to Democracy Now, Counterpunch, or ZNet and you will get expert analysis from those who cover the Venezuela beat.

I will only say this. I have seen over and over again “democratic” opposition to Marxist “tyrants” in Latin America, who except for the case of Fidel Castro, were never much more than the continent’s version of FDR, including Hugo Chavez. In every single instance when the opposition prevailed, the country was thrown into a real nightmare alluded to in Bloodworth’s title. The opposition in Venezuela is no goddamned different from that in Chile under Allende or Argentina under Peron. It resents the fact that poor people of color have gotten invited to the dinner table, even if their share dwarves in comparison to the Boligarchs. But if they are successful, the pie will be redivided along the lines of the status quo ante.

Don’t take my word for that or Greg Wilpert’s. Take that of an article that appeared in the March 7, 2013 Bloomberg News, the service created for investors who rely on it for hardheaded advice on how to improve their bottom line:

Isabel Rojas, a 72-year-old retired seamstress, was one beneficiary of Chavez’s policies. Rojas said she was given free housing in the Valles del Tuy neighborhood southwest of Caracas after the apartment she lived in was deemed in risk of collapse. After retiring in 1986, she said she began receiving a 2000 bolivar ($318) per month pension for the first time in 1999 after Chavez took power.

‘Valued the Poor’

Rojas said in an interview that she was impressed as much by Chavez’s words as his deeds.

“He valued the poor just as much as the rich,” she said. “Everyone had the same value.”

Venezuela has the lowest rate of income inequality – the smallest gap between the rich and the poor – of all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a March 5 report by UN-HABITAT, the United Nations Human Settlements Program.

The report, called “The State of Cities in Latin America and the Caribbean 2012,” uses the so-called Gini coefficient to measure inequality. It said Venezuela has the region’s lowest figure of 0.41, followed by Uruguay, and that the index has fallen “significantly” since 1990. The coefficient rates countries on a scale of zero to 1.0, with a higher number indicating greater inequality.

Call me cynical but my take on the middle-class protests in Venezuela is that it is less interested in democracy than it is in ratcheting the Gini coefficient back towards one. I remain a committed Marxist but when it comes to Maduro versus Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition leader who was a key figure in the 2002 coup attempt, I’ll stick with Maduro—warts and all. Or I should say Boligarchs and all.

February 22, 2014

Kurdish and Turkish films of note

Filed under: feminism,Film,Kurd,Turkey — louisproyect @ 11:26 am

Over the past several days I’ve looked at two Kurdish and two Turkish narrative films that would be of particular interest to my readers. The Kurdish films were filmed on location in Kurdistan, the new state taking shape in northern Iraq and the Turkish films in the remote Black Sea and Anatolian regions that are far from urbane Istanbul. Moreover, despite the intensity of the Turkish-Kurd conflict, the four films depict societies that despite their deep contradictions, especially involving the oppression of women against the backdrop of communal solidarity, are very much alike. Leaving aside their topical relevance, they are all examples of art film in the best sense of the term.

Opening yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York are two films by Jano Rosebiani, Kurdistan’s leading director. I use the term Kurdistan to indicate a people rather than an existing state although conditions are ripening in the Middle East that will make that a reality before long, both in Iraq and Syria.

Set in Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, “One Candle, Two Candles” is a comedy about a very serious topic: a young woman named Viyan (Kurdish for desire) is about to become the third wife of a local “headman” who is old enough to be her grandfather. As a car dealer, Haji Hemmo is about as close to a big businessman as you will see in Kurduva, the fictional name for Akre, a particularly beautiful town in Kurdistan where the film was shot. It is a jewel of the liberated territory that has extracted itself from the ongoing sectarian bloodbaths to its south.

In fact the bucolic charm of this town is a poignant reminder of what Iraq could have become if a combination of war and ethnic/religious sectarianism had not torn it apart. In a part of the world where state powers have become synonymous with brutality and economic greed, it is interesting to see how a historically stateless people can lead the way.

At the beginning of the film, Botan, a young, handsome and carefree artist from Zakho, the town that director Rosebiani grew up in, is sketching Viyan and her two companions while he charms them with allusions to ancient Kurdish history. He compares them to beautiful Nefertiti, the Hittite queen of Egypt who came from Zakho. Although the ancient history of the Kurds is not easily documented, there is no question that they originated in the territory occupied by the Hittite kingdoms.

The film is structured around the rivalry between Botan and Haji Hemmo over Viyan as they each line up supporters. Viyan’s father has a vested interest in seeing her married to Hemmo since the dowry includes a car from his lot. The town menfolk live in fear of Kitan, a middle-aged woman who is nicknamed the “ball-buster” since she squeezed the life out of her husband’s family jewels on account of his abusive treatment. Although the Kurds have moved a long way towards achieving peace within their borders, the household remains a battlefield with women under siege. As Engels once said, within the family the husband is the bourgeois and the wife the proletariat.

When Kitan walks through town, men practically duck into an alley to avoid her punishing grip. In one of the film’s many slapstick moments, she spots Viyan’s father on a virgin spin in his new car. She then commandeers the car and forces him to a stop; the town’s avenging proto-feminist in pursuit of another deserving prey. If Norman Mailer considered feminists to be ball-breakers, Kitan would be his worst nightmare. It is too bad a Kitan never got her hands on him.

At times the film will remind you of magical realism. Viyan climbs a tree in a wedding dress to avoid Hemmo’s all-too-persistent advances, a scene that will remind you of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. But it probably makes more sense to see it in terms of a thousand-year old folk tale that Kurds might have told each other around campfires long before there was the novel, movies, television or the Internet.

“Chaplin of the Mountains” is listed as a documentary on the Quad Cinema website but it actually a narrative film. Perhaps the fact that its action consists mostly of some young film students making a documentary in Kurdistan leads to this confusion.

At a hotel in Erbil, a beautiful young Kurdish woman named Nazé, who grew up in France, strikes up a conversation with a group of young filmmakers who have come to Kurdistan to visit small towns and villages in order to document the reaction that people have to their screening of Charlie Chaplin films. Considering the Chaplinesque moments in “One Candle, Two Candles”, one can easily imagine them having the same outlook as director Rosebiani when he was a film student himself.

When Nazé’s flight back to Paris is cancelled, she decides to join the film crew on their tour and accepts their generous offer to help her find her mother’s village that was destroyed during one of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks.

As they wend their way through the countryside, the results are not quite what they expected. Although the children are amused by Chaplin’s antics, some of the elders question the value of comedy to a people trying to build a new nation. Even worse, when they use a temple wall as a screen for a Chaplin one-reeler, they come close to being charged with sacrilege.

As a classic road movie, “Chaplain of the Mountains” is more a series of vignettes than a conventionally plotted drama. To this viewer, what makes it most memorable is the portrait of ordinary Kurdish people shot on location in a remote but beautiful region. They are the real stars. Most of all, you will be mesmerized by a series of performances by Kurdish folk musicians and dancers who are celebrating the continuation of an ancient civilization against all odds.

Ten years ago, almost to the date, I wrote an article about the Kurds for Swans, an online magazine. Given that the USA had just invaded Iraq, I tended to bend the stick in the direction of backing the Sunni resistance, which meant referring to the Kurds as “pawns”. I would not write the article in the same way today. I would refer you to the article if for no other reason that it will stimulate you into learning more about a people with a unique history. At the time I wrote:

The Kurds are ethnically related to the ancient Medes, but only came into their own with the rise of Islamic power. A Kurd by the name Salah-ud-Din reconquered Jerusalem from Richard the Lionhearted in the 12th century. Better known as Saladin, he established the Ayyubid dynasty which ruled over much of the Middle East until the rise of the Ottomans.

Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World had an enormous impact on commerce in the Middle East, which would no longer serve as a lucrative link between Europe and East Asia. Among the casualties were Kurdish merchants and toll-collectors.

In addition to being economically marginalized, the Kurds were isolated geographically as well. Preferring to dwell in the mountains or rocky hills, they subsisted on sheep-herding and small-scale farming. In the strict Marxist sense, class formation of modern capitalist society never took place until late in the 20th century.

Perhaps the amity that now characterizes Kurdistan today is an expression of the belated development of class relations. That is a topic worthy of further investigation.

“Watchtower” is a 2012 Turkish film directed by Pelin Esmer that is now available from Film Movement, a Netflix for the cognoscenti. This is probably at least the third film I have reviewed from their inventory and continue to be impressed by their curatorial finesse. “Watchtower” is a hauntingly beautiful film that is Turkish art film at its very best.

Essentially a two-character film, it depicts a middle-aged man and a young woman drawn together through pure happenstance in the Western Black Sea region, a ruggedly beautiful area. Nihat, the man, has just taken a job as a fire spotter on a mountaintop watchtower. Seher, the young woman, has taken a job with a small bus company headquartered in the tiny village at the foot of the mountain where Nihat stands watch. When she is not serving as a hostess on the bus, she is doing odd jobs around the restaurant that serves the bus passengers during a rest stop.

Seher’s parents have no idea why she should have dropped out of college and taken a dead-end job in such an isolated place. She can only reveal to her mother that she has become pregnant and is due to give birth shortly. Being unmarried and pregnant is tough enough for a Turkish woman from a traditional Anatolian family but in her case there is the added complication of her having been raped by her uncle. The bus stop is a way for her to get the birth of the baby out of the way and allow her to return to a normal life.

After finally giving birth, she leaves the newborn at the gate in front of the bus stop in the same fashion as poor women leaving their baby on the doorstep of a police precinct or hospital in New York, if they are at least humane enough not to leave it in a garbage can as happens from time to time.

Seher does not realize that Nihat has spotted her from inside the restaurant. In response to a tragic loss he has just suffered, he brings mother and child with him into the watchtower as they embark on a complicated relationship. He tries to persuade her to take a more loving relationship to the child despite her frequent attempts to be free of the responsibilities of motherhood, all the more understandable given the circumstances of how it came to pass.

The cinematography of “Watchtower” is stunning, with constant long shots of the Turkish forests and mountains. And even more effectively, there is an inspired use of sound. Dispensing with a film score, the action is highlighted by the sound of automobile tires on the roads beneath the mountains and the rustling of the leaves in the forest, creating a forlorn mood that is the perfect accompaniment to the unfolding human drama.

Female director Pelin Esmer majored in sociology at an Istanbul university before launching a career in film. “Watchtower” is a work imbued with a humanism that is very rarely seen in American films, either Hollywood or indie. It reminded me of a Chekhov short story as if a Turk had written it. Although the film is definitely an art film, it is also a deeply touching story that reminds you of what was lost when young filmmakers discovered irony. A must-see.

I discovered “Bliss” trawling through Netflix trying to find a movie that is geared to those with more than an IQ of 25. It is a 2007 film directed by Abdullah Oğuz that like “The Watchtower” and “One Candle, Two Candles” deals with the oppression of women in Turkish and Kurdish society. If you are not a Netflix subscriber, you can also watch it on Youtube. Part one is above.

When the film opens, we meet Meryem, a 17-year-old woman who has been violated in some fashion in a rural village in Anatolia, the eastern part of Turkey that is hobbled by “traditional values”. Despite the fact that Meryem is the victim, she is deemed unclean and must kill herself as expiation for her sins. While I have doubts that such a punishment is at all prevalent in Turkey, there are reports of such barbaric treatment of women elsewhere in Muslim society. In 2008 a 13-year-old had been gang-raped in Somalia. Instead of punishing the rapists, she was stoned to death by a mob.

Just before Meryem is forced to hang herself in a makeshift cell, soldiers enter the town since it has become notorious for imposing its own vigilante version of Islam, disregarding—for example—the Koranic stricture against suicide.

In order to expedite the punishment, the town elder, a creep named Ali Riza who is cut from the same cloth as Haji Hemmo, orders his son Cemal to take Meryem to Istanbul where he will take her life. Since Cemal has just returned from serving as a commando in the Turkish military against Kurdish rebels, he presumably can be trusted to carry out another act of brutality.

In Istanbul, he takes Meryem to a bridge and orders her at gunpoint to jump. She asks only one favor, if he would allow her to make a blindfold out of her scarf. Just before she jumps, Cemal decides that her life is more important than a village’s rigid codes and pulls her back from the edge. It also helps that the two have become infatuated with each other on the way to Istanbul. Love conquers all.

From that moment on, the couple are fair game for Ali Reza who dispatches a couple of goons to track them down in order to carry out the punishment. Just one step ahead of the hit squad, Cemal and Maryem are fortunate enough to run into Irfan, a professor who is on an extended leave from the academy and the shallowness of urban life in Istanbul. He invites them to work on his yacht as first mate and cook as he sails from island to island in the Sea of Marmara, an inland body of water that is one of Turkey’s most beautiful natural assets.

Irfan develops a paternal affection for the couple, understanding that they are fugitives—not so much from the law but from those who would wish them harm. Essentially, a three-character drama, the relationships between the three intensifies throughout the film as the village hit men close in on them.

“Bliss” is based on a novel by Zülfü Livaneli, a 68 year old Turk who is also a composer, singer, and politician. In 1997 he performed before a crowd of a half-million people in Ankara, to give you some sense of his popularity.

Wikipedia reports:

During his political career in Ankara, Livaneli presented a legislative proposal for amending Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The amendment proposed that the concept of “Turkishness” should be replaced with that of the “Turkish nation” which would put an emphasis on the concept of “nation” which, as formulated by the Republic, unites under its umbrella people of different origins. With this amendment, there would no more be a stress on the notion of Turkish race.

It is in the hands of people like Zülfü Livaneli and Jano Rosebiani to lead the transformation of the Middle East and North Africa. As I have stated on previous occasions, it is the artist—and particularly the filmmaker—who is functioning as the real vanguard of social change. The four films under review here will give you a sense of the yearnings of a people to finally make the land that was the birthplace of civilization its crowning glory once again.

February 20, 2014

Another false alarm over “war with Syria”

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:24 pm

It’s so interesting how the Baathist left never has a word to say about Syria as long as American intervention is off the table. But the merest rhetoric over “red lines” gets them worked up like a weasel on Dexedrine.

Last week a WSJ article made the rounds on all the pro-Baathist websites about how the Saudis were going to arm the rebels with Manpads. All of a sudden the Baathist tools woke up from their deep slumber and began warning about how “regime change” was on the agenda once again. It didn’t matter to them that the Baathists were starving people into submission after the fashion of Leningrad’s 900 days during WWII or that helicopters were dropping barrel bombs on working class tenements. In their eyes, all’s fair in love and war. Plus, such brutality was necessary in order to prevent the rise of the dreaded Sharia law and al-Qaeda (leaving aside the reality that ISIL was in a de facto alliance withe the Baathists.) Sometimes you have to destroy a city in order to save it.

Meanwhile, there are two things worth considering. First of all, this Reuters article states that the USA remains opposed to the rebels getting such weapons. Does anybody in their right mind think that the Saudis will ignore American wishes?

(Reuters) – The United States is opposed to the supply of shoulder-fired missiles, capable of taking down warplanes, to rebel forces in Syria, a senior Obama administration official said on Tuesday.

The official, traveling with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Tunisia, was responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Friday which said Saudi Arabia had offered to give Syrian rebels Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, and anti-tank guided missiles from Russia.

The newspaper cited an Arab diplomat and several opposition sources with knowledge of the efforts.

The Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “The administration remains opposed to any provision of MANPADS to the Syrian opposition.”

Next we learn from Debka that in order to placate Israel, Obama persuaded the Saudis to relieve Prince Bandar of his duties:

The Saudi intelligence chief crossed the Americans by supplying weapons and money to Syrian rebels belonging to Islamist militias – though not al Qaeda. He was the driving force behind the formation of the Islamic Front coalition, which last month beat the Free Syrian Army backed by Washington into the ground.

Some Gulf sources say he is paying the price for the kingdom’s failure in Syria. Bandar promised King Abdullah thatg he would take care of getting rid of Bashar Assad. He not only fell down on this task, but he generated a clash between the Obama administration and the Saudi throne on the Syrian issue, say those sources.

The most striking evidence of his comedown came from his absence from the secret conclave held recently by Middle East intelligence chiefs to coordinate their positions on Syrian with Washington.

Instead of Prince Bandar, his seat was taken by his leading adversary on Syria, the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Prince Mohammed is a favorite at the White House and a close friend of Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director John Brennan.

Of course, none of this will assuage those on an ideological mission to whitewash one of the most vicious and reactionary dictatorships on the planet since the days of General Pinochet. How will history judge those who propagandized on behalf of Bashar al-Assad using leftist rhetoric? Not very kindly, I believe.

February 19, 2014

Bob Casale, Guitarist in Devo, Dies at 61

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:22 pm

NY Times February 19, 2014
Bob Casale, Guitarist in Devo, Dies at 61

Bob Casale, a guitarist who was an original member of the influential rock band Devo, died on Monday. He was 61.

His death was announced by the bassist Gerald Casale, his brother and fellow band member, who said in a statement that the cause was “conditions that lead to heart failure.” He provided no further details.

Devo (the name is short for “devolution”) began in Akron, Ohio, in the early 1970s and first attracted national attention in 1977 with a frenzied version of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

The group’s first album, “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!,” produced by Brian Eno, was released in 1978; its off-kilter rhythms, deadpan lyrics and use of electronics quickly attracted a following and had a strong influence on the music that came to be known as new wave.

The singer Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were the band’s leaders. Mr. Mothersbaugh said in a statement on Tuesday that Bob Casale was “integral in Devo’s sound.”

The band’s popularity peaked with the 1980 album “Freedom of Choice,” which was certified platinum and contained Devo’s best-known song, “Whip It,” which reached the Billboard Top 20 and became an MTV favorite.

Devo broke up in 1991, but re-formed five years later. In 2010 the band released “Something for Everybody,” its first new album in 20 years.

Mr. Casale’s survivors include his wife, Lisa; a son, Alex; and a daughter, Samantha.

Devo’s longtime drummer Alan Myers died last year.

The gangster billionaire behind Ukraine’s president

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 12:17 pm

Rinat Akhmetov … Ukraine's richest man.

Rihat Akmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, an “anti-imperialist”? Really?

In today’s NY Times, an article on street fighting in the Ukraine mentions in passing that the billionaire businessman Rihat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, was one of the president’s most stalwart supporters. Now that made me sit up and pay attention. If you read Global Research or the World Socialist Website, you’d tend to think that the troubles in the Ukraine are the result of a cabal by the Republican rightwing and the Ukrainian bourgeoisie to use the native fascists as a battering ram against Putin’s allies who are trying to preserve state-owned industry. This formula, needless to say, has been used incessantly for the past 30 years without much regard for the facts. As I have pointed out in a previous post, the picture is a lot more complicated.

In doing some investigation on Akhmetov, I discovered an intriguing article in the usually useless Nation Magazine that helps to debunk this mythology. It turns out that John McCain’s advisers played a key role in promoting the fortunes of Rihat Akhmetov and President Viktor Yanukovich, supposedly the guardian of state-owned property and the working class. But Mark Ames, the editor of The eXiled Online—a hard-hitting anti-oligarch publication that Matt Taibbi worked for at one time, and Ari Berman cut through the bullshit. The article begins with an analysis of how Oleg Deripaska, a Putin-backed aluminum tycoon in Russia, benefited from the advice he got from a consulting firm run by Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager, and then proceeds to a discussion of the Ukraine:

If you’re wondering how Deripaska came to know Davis & Co., the answer lies in Russia’s next-door neighbor Ukraine.

In December 2004 Ukrainians poured into the streets of Kiev and other cities in the peaceful “Orange Revolution,” which overthrew a Putin-backed corrupt leader, Viktor Yanukovich, who had tried to steal the country’s presidential election that year (during which the pro-Western opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned and almost died). It was a serious blow to Russia’s geopolitical standing.

Putin’s Ukrainian proxies were also in trouble. Shortly after the Orange Revolution, a murder investigation was launched against the country’s richest oligarch, Rinat [sometimes referred to as Rihat] Akhmetov, Yanukovich’s main backer. Akhmetov fled the country. In exile in Monaco, he turned to Davis’s business partner, Paul Manafort–the second name in the lobbying firm Davis Manafort. An old GOP hand, Manafort, like Davis, had played a key role in Dole’s failed 1996 presidential run and had worked for dictators like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Akhmetov initially hired Manafort to improve the image of his beleaguered conglomerate, SCM, but soon Manafort’s role shifted to helping Yanukovich.

Manafort assembled a skilled team of political operatives in Ukraine and set about raising the popularity of Yanukovich’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, which Akhmetov financed. It was a very lucrative deal for Davis Manafort–and successful (according to Ukrainian investigative journalist Mustafa Nayem, Akhmetov paid Manafort upward of $3 million). Yanukovich’s disgraced party won a resounding victory in the March 2006 elections–and Akhmetov returned as the top Ukrainian oligarch. Thanks in part to the work of Davis Manafort, the Orange Revolution was essentially undone, putting Putin back in the chess match over Ukraine’s future.

This Akhmetov is quite a piece of work. The website Russian Mafia has quite a dossier on the billionaire. I especially enjoyed this tidbit:

Akhmetov’s first money most likely came from Sochi where Soviet elite came on vacation. Looking for new impressions secretaries, generals and company directors played a shell game with him, betting large sums of money.  The result was quite predictable.

In the late 1980s Bragin and his group were known as the shaddow [sic] owners of Donetsk. The perestroika, green light for private ownership, timid economic reforms and lifting of the iron curtain gave a chance to people like him to come out of the shadow. They began to invest money received from under-the-counter curency exchange and gamling into different entities; they bought computers and VCRs and brought them from the West; they opened shops selling tapes and equipment.

Source: Ukraina kriminalnaya, 13 January 2003

The Bragin referred to above is one Akhat Bragin, who was Akhmetov’s boss at one point. Gangsters battling over turf murdered Bragin in 1995. And don’t you just love how Akhmetov’s initial fortune came from Sochi? How fitting.

This tendency to reduce the struggle in the Ukraine to one pitting the stooges of George Soros, John McCain and western corporations against the “progressive” forces in the East trying to hold on to the legacy of the USSR, as if Putin’s job as a KGB officer had something to do with October 1917, is an insult to our intelligence. There are people on the left—putting it charitably—who are spinning this narrative as if their life depended on it. Who knows? Maybe Akhmetov is paying them off.

Before you find yourself succumbing to this version of the truth written by the same people who would make you believe that Bashar al-Assad is fighting to preserve Baathist socialism, this article by Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian studying at the University College in London, is worth your consideration:

There has been a huge tide of false, incorrect and bloated reports that exaggerate or over-emphasize the significance of the far right in the current Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. A Moscow-based journalist Alec Luhn writes in The Nation about “the Ukrainian nationalism at the heart of ‘Euromaidan’“, a leftist Seumas Milne argues in The Guardian that “in Ukraine, fascists, oligarchs and western expansion are at the heart of the crisis“, while a self-styled “independent geopolitical analyst” Eric Draitser, in his nauseatingly misleading piece for his own Stop Imperialism (later re-published by The Centre for Research on Globalization), even goes so far as to claim that “the violence on the streets of Ukraine […] is the latest example of the rise of the most insidious form of fascism that Europe has seen since the fall of the Third Reich”.

These and many other similar articles are all written according to the same pattern, and their aim is to discredit the Euromaidan protests as the manifestations of fascism, neo-Nazism or – at the very least – right-wing extremism.

Every single mass political mobilisation in Ukraine has been accompanied by the attempts to compromise the popular uprisings by associating them with the extreme right. And not only uprisings or protests, but big events too. For example, a few weeks before the start of the Euro-2012 football championship, British media hysterically accused Ukrainians of racism and xenophobia, and warned that any non-White person going to see football matches in Ukraine would definitely and immediately be killed. After the championship was over, no British media outlet apologised to the Ukrainian people when it turned out that not one racist incident involving Ukraine fans had been reported during the tournament.

The current campaign to defame the Euromaidan protests is so far the strongest attack on the Ukrainian civil society and democratic politics. Similar attacks took place in the past too, although their intensity never reached today’s level. During the “Orange revolution“, the Ukrainian semi-authoritarian regime under President Leonid Kuchma was also trying to defile democratic presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko by associating him with the extreme right. And here is a story that links the past and the present.

I strongly recommend that you read the entire article.

February 18, 2014

The Returned

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

For only $6.99 on ITunes, “The Returned” would be a bargain at twice the price. Nominally a zombie movie, it is much more about the horrors of a “normal” society that seeks to quarantine and perhaps ultimately wipe out “the returned”—those people whose zombie tendencies are suppressed by a medication dispensed in hospitals and clinics. Just one injection a day and you are good to go.

The “returned” zombie in question is Alex (Kris Holden-Ried), a music professor and guitarist who injects himself each day to remain normal, just like a diabetic taking insulin. His wife Kate (Emily Hampshire) is a physician assigned to a clinic that specializes in intensive treatments for the newly “returned” that thanks to the miracle drug are almost ready to return to a normal life.

The only fly in the ointment is that the drug relies on an ingredient found in nature that is rapidly running out. There is a forced march to discover a synthetic drug that will be available before the natural one runs out. The ticking clock has caused a panic in both the general population. The state has decided to round up the “returned” and quarantine them in detention camps, while vigilantes have taken it upon themselves to kill them before the lack of a permanent cure creates a new epidemic.

Throughout the entire film, there is only one brief scene that looks like it belongs in a George Romero production. Mostly the drama revolves around the efforts of Alex and Kate to live normal lives as an increasingly monstrous society bears down on them.

The closest relative to “The Returned” is the 2009 “Daybreakers” that tells the story of vampires who function normally in society but only at the expense of normal people who are hunted down for their blood as research for synthetic blood is accelerated. In both films the contrast drawn between the monster and the normal is meant to serve as social commentary on capitalist society and effectively so. While “The Returned” is a low-budget affair and suffers from a somewhat pat ending, it is a well-acted and intelligent work.

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