Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2014

Hometown news

Filed under: Catskills,poverty,racism — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Chances are that if you grew up in a small town like me, you keep up with online versions of the local newspapers. For me that means bookmarking the Middletown Times Herald-Record and the Sullivan County Democrat. Back in the 1950s such papers were running stories on the front page about the opening of the county fair or some local hotel hosting Fourth of July fireworks. Some of you might recall that I grew up in Woodridge, a town celebrated in the pages of leftie NYC newspaper PM back in 1947 as a “utopia in the Catskills”. Now it is much more of a dystopia with items like this from the Middletown Times Herald-Record:

Heroin dealers busted at 53 Maple Avenue; I grew up at 66 Maple Avenue

In a related story, the Sullivan County Democrat reported about heroin turning up at my old high school:

Sullivan County Democrat, Mar. 31 2014

Fallsburg police replacing school resource officer

By Dan Hust – staff writer

FALLSBURG — The Town of Fallsburg Police Department has reassigned Martin Gonzalez from his duties as Fallsburg Central School District’s School Resource Officer (SRO).

Gonzalez, who found heroin inside a men’s bathroom at the Benjamin Cosor Elementary School in Fallsburg last month, remains a police officer with the department. A previous NYS Medal of Valor awardee for a 2011 rescue effort in Liberty, Gonzalez is not accused of any wrongdoing and is not under investigation, said Fallsburg Police Chief Simmie Williams.

Calling it “the toughest decision of my life,” Williams said Gonzalez is being replaced for the sake of the SRO program.

At Monday’s Fallsburg Town Board meeting, a group of teachers told town officials that they no longer trust Gonzalez and criticized the way the police had handled the heroin investigation, which focused on more than half a dozen faculty who had accessed the bathroom prior to the drug discovery.

That’s the school I graduated from in June 1961 at the tender age of 16. Back then the only thing we knew about heroin was what we saw in movies like “A Hatful of Rain” or “The Man with the Golden Arm” that were set in the slums of New York City and Chicago respectively. By 1975 most of Sullivan County had turned into a rural slum, mostly the result of the Borscht Belt hotel industry hollowing out.

In 2012, the median family income for New York State was $52,095, for Sullivan County it was $43,458. Most of the jobs are in the public or nonprofit sector, like working as a prison guard or as a hospital orderly. Back in the 1950s, many people who decided to remain in the area rather than moving to New York City opened small businesses or went to work for their parents. With the collapse of the tourist industry, that possibility no longer exists.

On October 21, 2013 a Monticello lawyer (the Borscht Belt town, not Thomas Jefferson’s plantation locale) named Steven Kurlander blogged in the Huffington Post about the need for casino gambling to revive the Catskills. After 35 years of wrangling, it looks like it might finally be coming. Here’s how he described the once thriving Monticello:

It’s not just that Sullivan County has had the highest unemployment rate, the worst health care outcomes, and the highest percentage of poverty in upstate New York for years.

Just walk down Broadway, the main street of Monticello, and the answer is clear.

Broadway, once a thoroughfare famed for being the epicenter of a booming Borscht Belt, is now basically an abandoned main street devoid of businesses, its storefronts empty and failing into disrepair.

The lights on this Broadway have been turned off for decades and Monticello’s business district is a ghost town.

Gangs and drug abuse run rampant in Monticello and prey on its poor residents living in subsidized projects and crumbling neighborhoods abandoned by a fleeing middle class and taken over by absentee Section 8 landlords.

Last summer I went upstate to do some video recording about my hometown and the surrounding environs. A major part of the film will involve interviews with Herman Goldfarb, a retired physician who has been involved with progressive politics for decades. I plan to work on getting that film together in the next few weeks but in the meantime here are his observations on the streets of Monticello’s Broadway:

Just around the time that the tourist industry began dying, Sullivan County began becoming more African-American and Latino. I am not sure what explains the demographic change since the region was not generating new jobs. One of the big employers for Latino workers is Murray’s poultry, a supplier of “organic” chickens and turkeys to NY grocery stores. Mrs. Murray Bresky was a woman named Ellen that was in my class back at Fallsburgh High School. I doubt that I spent more than five minutes in conversation with her my entire time there.

Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 3.28.59 PM

Despite his concerns about the health and well-being of his customers, Murray appears to care little about his largely Latino workforce:

Washington Post, April 25, 2013

At chicken plants, chemicals blamed for health ailments are poised to proliferate

By Kimberly Kindy

When Jose Navarro landed a job as a federal poultry inspector in 2006, he moved his wife and newborn son to a rural town in Upstate New York near the processing plant, believing it was a steppingstone to a better life.

Five years later, Navarro was dead. The 37-year-old’s lungs had bled out.

His death triggered a federal investigation that raised questions about the health risks associated with a rise in the use of toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals in poultry plants. Agriculture Department health inspectors say processing plants are turning to the chemicals to remove contaminants that escape notice as processing line speeds have accelerated, in part to meet growing consumer demand for chicken and turkey.

At the end of each workday at Murray’s Chicken, Jose Navarro would climb into his Ford station wagon, drive by the Holy Ghost and Fire Church, and pass a single stoplight to reach his rented home in South Fallsburg, N.Y.

His wife, Nicole Byrne Navarro, said he would give “lengthy, detailed reports” each evening about his concerns about the plant, which often focused on the chemicals used to disinfect both equipment and birds.

“Some themes that were constant were poor ventilation and overuse and mishandling of chemicals which constantly irritated his lungs,” Byrne Navarro said. “Sometimes he would hold his hand over his chest and talk about the chlorine reaching intolerable levels that day.”

Several months before he died, he coughed up blood, but it “self-resolved,” according to the autopsy report. Then on Nov. 19, 2011, he began coughing up blood and went to the hospital, where his lungs continued to hemorrhage. He died a week later after his lungs and kidneys failed, the autopsy report said.

At the time of Navarro’s death, Murray’s Chicken was using chlorine and peracetic acid to treat the birds, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.

Chlorine and peracetic acid are two of the most commonly used chemicals in plants, according to OSHA inspection documents and interviews with USDA inspectors and poultry plant workers.

At plants where line speeds have been increased, inspectors and plant workers say chemical use is on the rise and that the exposure time to the chemicals has been extended. Sometimes a third chemical is added, but that practice varies from plant to plant.

Back in 2008 Monticello elected its first Black mayor, a former prison guard who now ran a shoe store on the town’s decaying Broadway. While by no means a big a deal as Obama’s election, it was news enough to make the NY Times:

NY Times, March 27, 2008

Our Towns

A Lesson in Politics as Unusual


Gordon Jenkins outside his store in Monticello, N.Y. “You look at the heyday of this place, and it was beautiful,” he says.

You might think Gordon Jenkins would be excited.

He just made history, elected on Tuesday as the first black mayor of this faded resort town. And a day later, people filter nonstop into his G-Man shop, a beauty supply, hip-hop clothing and footwear store on Broadway, to shake his hand, give him a hug. Drivers honk at him on the street, and passers-by give him the thumbs-up and shout, “Jenkins for mayor!” They bring him free coffee from the bagel store next door. Big-shot lawyers wander in looking for jobs.

Not all politics is about race. Was it a factor? Sure. The town’s population is about 55 percent white, 30 percent black and 23 percent Hispanic. But Mr. Jenkins isn’t all that big on having a national or local conversation about race. “I hate racial issues; that’s not what this was ever about,” he said as some of his new constituents stopped by to talk about the flooding on their streets or how they were managing their diabetes. “It just brings up old wounds. We’d all get along a lot better if we could just get past it.”

Things went downhill rapidly after Jenkins took office, especially—surprise, surprise—when it came to the local cops who probably were not used to seeing a Black man in a position of authority. His first run-in occurred in February 2012 when police were summoned to his store to eject a 300-pound man who was trying to pick a fight with Jenkins. In the ensuing melee Jenkins accidentally hit one of the cops. That was not extenuating enough for him to be convicted of a misdemeanor last month.

His next run-in occurred on November 16, 2013 when he showed up at a major auto accident not far from his home, something he saw as his responsibility. Unfortunately, he had some alcohol on his breath and the cops ordered him to take a Breathalyzer test. Upon failing it, they took him to jail where he threw a tantrum while in custody. Carmen Rue, a Republican on the Town Board who has been spearheading a drive to remove Jenkins, made the tape of Jenkins available to the news media that played up the story as Monticello’s Rob Ford.

Michael Sussman, Jenkins’s attorney who specializes in civil rights cases, went on CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1311/26/ijvm.01.html) to discuss the incident. The exchange reflects the state of race relations in the USA:

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, HOST: Tonight, the latest mayor gone wild. Yet another politician behaving badly. And once again, it`s all caught on tape.

Good evening. I`m Jane Velez-Mitchell coming to you live.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Charged with drunk driving, busted by his own cops.



Straight out to the attorney representing this guy, caught on tape, Mayor Jenkins. Now, you`re reported as saying that the mayor`s base has suffered indignities at the hands of the local cops, and they understand what he was saying. Well, please translate, because I don`t really understand what he`s saying.

MICHAEL SUSSMAN, ATTORNEY FOR MAYOR GORDON JENKINS: I don`t think any of your guests understand. Listening to you, it`s a very ignorant group, honestly. Let`s start…

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, why don`t you educate us as to what this gentleman that you represent is talking about?

SUSSMAN: Let`s start with this, please. The mayor was at a social engagement Saturday night. The mayor understood there was a serious accident in his community, and he drove over to give assistance at the accident.

If any police person at the scene thought the mayor was in any way intoxicated, what a reasonable police officer would do is go up to the mayor and say to the mayor, “Do you need a hand? Do you need a ride anywhere?”

Instead, an individual who had been passed over for police chief has testified in his sworn statement that he waited for the mayor to get into a vehicle, thereby endangering the public if he was really drunk, waited for the mayor to drive away, and then picked up the mayor. He then brought the mayor back to the police station and chained the mayor to a wall for approaching nine hours. When the mayor asked to have his lawyer called they essentially laughed at him and never called me.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: All right. Hold on one second, sir. You`ve said something…

SUSSMAN: All of you have such strong opinions, but none of you know what occurred.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: His words are his words. He`s calling people names that I cannot repeat here.

SUSSMAN: Let me try to respond to what you`re all saying for a moment. OK?

It`s one thing if you have no life experience like Gordon Jenkins, 29 years a correction officer in New York state, an honorably discharged Army veteran, in the city government in Monticello as mayor for five years, on the board for nine years. If you have no track record and you have no experience and you don`t understand who you are dealing with, it`s one thing. What Gordon Jenkins did is…

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, that`s — all of that is even more of a reason why he shouldn`t do that. He should have known better.

SUSSMAN: Let me speak for a moment. You have five guests who have one opinion. Let me explain the situation, please.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: OK. Go for it. Because we`re running out of time.

SUSSMAN: You have — you have people on this force who have been engaged in — against Gordon for a number of years. Rather than do what any reasonable police officer would do, if they thought he was drunk, which is to go to — if it was a white mayor you mean to tell me that they wouldn`t have gone up to the man and said, “We think you`re drunk, Mayor. Can we give you a ride home?”

That goes across the board, obviously. Blacks get long sentences for selling or possessing crack cocaine while white professionals get a slap on the wrist for using powdered cocaine, a recreational drug. It doesn’t matter that Jenkins was once a law enforcement employee. Once he got on the wrong side of the Town Board, he would end up under a microscope.

What’s the lesson in all this? Fifty years ago I never would have imagined that my home town could end up looking like it does today, with heroin busts, vendettas against a Black mayor, and rural squalor. But then again I never would have imagined back then that the USA as whole would be as bad off as it is today, with cities like Detroit writing large what is happening in my old home town.

March 30, 2014

Yanukovych’s ouster: the myth and the reality

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:11 pm

“Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

The dominant left narrative is that Viktor Yanukovych was Ukraine’s version of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, a “popularly elected” (as Stephen F. Cohen puts it) president whose decision to reject a deal with the EU in favor of a better deal with Russia made him the target of a conspiracy of local fascists and Western imperialism. Furthermore, if not for protesters being killed by snipers “hired” by the Euromaidan protest leaders, the “putsch” would have not succeeded. This is the story put forward by RT.com and echoed by WSWS.org, Global Research, and other websites too numerous to mention.

A deeper investigation reveals that it was his own erstwhile backers who were decisive in his ouster. In a maneuver that evokes Mubarak’s removal in Egypt, elements of the “pro-Russian” oligarchy decided to throw Yanukovych to the wolves in order to deflate the mass movement and make continued oligarchic rule possible. As Don Fabrizio put it in Giuseppi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

The most detailed account of this behind the scenes machinations can be found in a February 25th Der Spiegel article titled Yanukovych’s Fall: The Power of Ukraine’s Billionaires written by Christian Neef. The billionaires referred to in the article’s title were not those who were on the side of the protesters like the candy mogul Petro Olekseyevich Poroshenko, now running for president but rather two of Yakunovych’s staunchest supporters: Rinat Akhmetov and Dmitry Firtash, who controlled half of the pro-Russian Party of Regions.

I had written about Akhmetov six days before Neef’s article appeared and would have assumed at the time that the oligarch would have stuck with Yanukovych until the bitter end. Neef cites Vadim Karasev, a long-time political operative in Ukraine: “The two knew that, were Yanukovych to fall, they would be the biggest losers. That is why they did everything to prevent the radical solution sought by the protesters on the Maidan.” In other words they understood that for things to remain the same, they had to change.

Akhmetov and Firtash literally buy and sell politicians. In the last presidential election, they provided the funding that won them roughly 90 spots on the Party of Regions ballot. They sensed weakness in the Yanukovych administration long before the sniper attack in Maidan Square and began looking around for alternatives. Like Putin, Akhmetov had always gotten along well with Tymoshenko, according to Neef.

Last week the Global Research/WSWS wing of the left was beside itself over RT.com’s transcript of Tymoshenko’s phone call with Nestor Shufrych, the former deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. She told Shufrych that she would like to “grab a machine gun and shoot that motherfucker in the head”, the motherfucker in question being Putin. Although there is little likelihood that Tymoshenko has a shot of being Ukraine’s next president, largely over lingering resentment over her selling out her country to Gazprom, one imagines that Putin would have no problem with her. The Moscow Times reported on how the Russian strongman continued to support her despite the violent rhetoric that he clearly understood was empty bombast:

Putin made it very clear that Moscow would like to see former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko become that country’s next president. He alluded to this twice recently, using almost exactly the same wording each time and wistfully recalling their productive working relationship.

Why is Putin endorsing Tymoshenko? Does he want to undermine her chances of winning the presidential elections on May 25 by casting her as the Kremlin favorite? Or does he have just the opposite plan in mind — to help Tymoshenko win the support of the pro-Russian voters who previously stood behind former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych?

The second theory is bolstered by the fact that Tymoshenko holds very close political ties to Viktor Medvedchuk, once the head of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s administration and a man who has long and unabashedly been Putin’s personal agent for influencing the situation in Ukraine. Also, Medvedchuk’s long-time political and business partner, Andrei Klyuyev — a pro-Russian politician and former head of Yanukovych’s presidential administration — was one of the main advocates for unifying the Party of Regions with the bloc supporting Tymoshenko into a so-called “broad” coalition in 2009.

It was the Maidan Square killings that made up the oligarchy’s mind that Yanukovych had to go. While the identity of the men who did the shooting will probably never be fully revealed, it could be said that if it was not for this incident, the slow steady erosion of support for the beleaguered president would have led to the same result.

To start with, two out of three Ukrainians preferred the EU to Putin’s trade bloc in early October 2013. And even more tellingly, a full half of all those living in the eastern half of the country agreed that the EU was the way to go.

Weeks before the Maidan Square bloodbath, there were signs that disaffection with Yanukovych was nation-wide as the NY Times reported on February 5th (Ukraine Chief Loses Support in Stronghold). In Dnepropetrovsk, a military-industrial complex in eastern Ukraine that most analysts would regard as Yanukovych territory, even a modest and peaceful pro-EU rally was viewed as a threat. The cops arrested 24 protesters on January 26th and charged them with “participation in a mass disturbance,” a crime carrying a penalty of up to eight years. This kind of repression was occurring all through the Ukraine since the protests began, a huge irritant to the body politic. The Times reports on what happened that day:

The rally, near the regional administration building, turned violent when unidentified men in track suits started beating pro-Europe demonstrators. The administration building is now a fortress, its main entrance protected by riot police officers behind a barricade of icy snow, its lobby strung with razor wire and packed with security officials. The police block all but official cars from taking a nearby road.

“They feel under siege and are trying to build a castle to keep out the enemy,” said Yuri Raikhel, a local political commentator. “They all understand that everything they have could collapse like a house of cards.”

The Maidan Square bloodbath brought the weakness and isolation of the Yanukovych administration to the point of no return. Members of Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions beginning to abandon him in droves, including Volodymyr Makeyenko, the mayor of Kyiv and a long-time member of the Party of Regions. In a Youtube video, Makeyenko stated: “No power is worth the cost of human lives.” Like rats deserting a sinking ship, Yanukovych’s most senior aide joined the pro-EU faction:

The most senior defection, and one of the first, was that of the President’s chief of staff and ally of 15 years, Serhiy Liovochkin, who tendered his resignation in late November, just after the first crackdown of the uprising saw police in Kiev’s Independence Square severely beat dozens of students, who had been holding a peaceful all-night vigil for integration with the European Union. “These acts were the beginning of the current crisis in the country,” Liovochkin wrote in e-mailed remarks to TIME on Feb. 17, on the eve of the latest wave of deadly clashes in Kiev.

“I strongly oppose those who offer stability without freedom and without development,” he wrote, making a veiled jab at the hardliners surrounding Yanukovych. “He has many people around him that express opinions and offer advice, but at the end of the day he is the one who is making decisions and bears the responsibility for them,” Lyovochkin wrote in what appear to have been his first remarks to the media since his resignation. That diversity of views, he said earlier this week, should have urged the President to start “looking for a new balance and looking for the formula of appeasement.”

If you take the Global Research/WSWS reporting at face value, you would conclude that Yanukovych is counting on the support of his party and of the Kremlin to return to power—almost like Aristide after the killers in Haiti prevented him from assuming the presidency after winning the elections. You would not know, however, that Yanukovych has zero support in the Ukraine now, neither from the Euromaidan faction nor from the pro-Russian Party of Regions. Just yesterday he got the boot, along with his right-hand man:

Delegates at the Party of Regions congress in Kyiv on Saturday, March 29, expelled from their ranks the former president Viktor Yanukovych and several members of his team, reports Dzerkalo Tyzhdnya.

In addition to Yanukovych, the following members were expelled: former prime minister Mykola Azarov, former head of the Ministry of Revenues Oleksandr Klymenko, former deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov, former minister of the Department of Energy Eduard Stavytskyy, former head of the Donetsk Oblast Administration Andriy Shyshatskyy. However, the former head of the presidential administration, Andriy Klyuyev, was not on the list of those expelled.

These profound changes reflect the massive support for a turn away from the oligarchic status quo, of either the Tymoshenko or Yanukovych variety. Ordinary people did not come out into the streets from October to February because they were “in love” with the West. They simply wanted an end to corruption and the chance to live in a freer and more equitable society. If membership in the EU does not realize those hopes, and certainly it won’t, it is up to them to decide their own destiny. The least thing they need, however, is to be slandered as tools of NATO, the CIA, and the social base for the Ukrainian version of the Third Reich. A Marxmail subscriber who has been active in the Ukrainian left for over a decade informed us on how narrow the support for the ultra-right is:

As for the real popular support behind the Right sector, we can measure it using the recent presidential rating


(it’s in Russian but you can always use Google translate).

Petro Poroshenko is the leader with almost 25% support. Others are trailing far behind him.

He is a wealthy oligarch nicknamed Chocolate King for owning several confectionary enterprises (I live not far from one of them – the Karl Marx factory in Kyiv). Politically he is a centrist.

As for the far right, Tyahnybok of Svoboda is supported by 1.7% and Dmytro Yarosh of the Right Sector has 0.9%.

Oddly enough, even Oleh Lyashko who is widely regarded as a political clown wins against both of them with 3.5%.

As an anarchist friend of mine commented on facebook, “finally, the country has rated its clowns appropriately.”

March 29, 2014

Action movie cliches

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:02 pm

See cliche #10 below

Okay, let me start with a spoiler alert, not that it will make much difference to my regular readers. This is something that happens at the end of Liam Neeson’s idiotic “Taken 2”, whose only redeeming feature is that it was filmed in beautiful Istanbul. Neeson, playing an ex-CIA agent, is alone with the father of an Albanian gangster he killed in “Taken” who has vowed to kill Neeson in revenge. You know how those Albanians are into vendettas, right? Anyhow, Neeson gives him his gun and offers him a choice: “You can continue the cycle by killing me or resolve it by putting the gun down.” After saying that, Neeson begins walking away. You know how those dirty Albanians are, right? He aims the gun at Neeson’s back and opens fire but nothing happens! The chamber is empty! Neeson throws the bullets on the ground and then puts a patented CIA death grip on the Albanian’s face and the movie ends. I said to myself as I watched this scene, “Self, haven’t you seen the empty chamber scene a hundred times before”? At least one other critic (http://www.thelondonfilmreview.com/film-review/review-taken-2/) has taken note of the clichéd character of “Taken 2”, writing that it was “determined to tick a box for every action movie cliché going”.

So, off the top of my head, here’s the most overused action movie clichés I’ve run into over the past 50 years or so. This includes westerns, war, spy, crime, science-fiction and horror movies.

1. The empty chamber – described above.

2. Throwing up at the sight of a mutilated corpse – Typically, a rookie cop seeing his first dead body turns away in horror and then begins puking. This may have had some impact when you first saw something like this in 1965 or so but after seeing it a thousand times your tendency is to yawn.

3. “You don’t have to do this” – a plea that a man or woman makes to a killer who has a pistol trained on them. Why can’t they say something like this instead? “If you don’t shoot me, I’ll promise to be your best friend”.

4. Car crashing into a fruit stand – probably first seen in an Indiana Jones movie. The fruit goes flying everywhere and the peddler, usually wearing a fez and mustache throws up his hands in dismay. Time to retire this.

5. Guy being chased or chasing someone in the street straddles the hood of an oncoming car and bangs on it a couple of times for emphasis – clearly related to #4 above. This should be retired as well.

6. Villain smacked with a shovel or some other heavy instrument but not finished off – this usually happens with about 10 minutes left in a horror movie. A serial killer has been knocked over the head and the heroine (usually) stands over him with the shovel or club in her hands. And then walks away toward freedom. Of course, you know that with 10 minutes left in the film Jason or Freddy will reappear for the final showdown. Whenever I am watching such a scene with my wife, we look at each other knowingly and say something like “She should smash a cinder block on his head until his brains spill out of his broken skull”. No such luck.

7. Trying to escape in a car from the villain – There are different versions of this. In most instances, just before the heroine (usually) turns the key, the killer busts the window open and grabs her by the throat. In a variation on this, she is so spooked that her trembling hands can’t get the key into the keyhole. Or, the engine won’t start after she turns the key. Boring.

8. Corpse materializes in a well or some other body of water – In escaping from the villain, there’s often a scene where the hero or heroine ends up in a well or body of water, the more fetid the better. 9 out of 10 times the skeletal remains of his previous victims will float to the surface.

9. Soldier within weeks of honorable discharge gets a bullet in the head – That’s a staple of war movies since the 1940s, as far as I know—granted that I am old but not old enough to have seen them when they first came out.

10. Gangsters versus gangsters, or cops versus gangsters train guns on each other in close quarters in anticipation of all hell breaking loose – This is a staple of Hong Kong movies, especially John Woo. Following Tarantino, his British and American imitators recycled this plot staple and turned it into a cliché.

March 28, 2014

Night of the Long Knives in Ukraine?

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Ernst Röhm, a Nazi leader who died in the Night of the Long Knives

Although I would never go so far as Jaron Lanier or Evgeny Morozov in finding fault with the Internet, I continue to be dismayed by the intellectual laziness it breeds—particularly when it comes to the sort of “talking points” advanced on matters such as Syria or Ukraine. In tandem with the steady decline of the print medium, especially books, and the shorter attention span of the average adult fed on a diet of Hollywood blockbusters, cable TV and video games, you see, for example, a virtual ocean of articles on 9/11 making identical points most of which originate on a smaller core of truther websites. It does not seem to matter much to a conspiracy-minded blogger that they are repeating points made by thousands of other bloggers. There seems to be some sort of comfort in being part of  a herd.

Much of the garbage that has been dumped into the Internet about Ukraine since last November share the conspiratorial mindset of the 9/11 truthers. In fact Global Research, a website that is ranked 4,525 in the USA (by comparison, CounterPunch is ranked 10,522), is both a 9/11 truther outlet as well as a prime purveyor of RT.com wisdom. While the World Socialist Website is not quite into the 9/11 nonsense, it too can be relied upon to serve as sounding board for the Kremlin. (It is ranked 35,687—whew, that’s a relief.)

This morning as I checked WSWS.org, a daily task that might be equated to emptying the garbage or flossing my teeth, I noticed a talking point that has begun to reverberate through the pro-Putin left prompted by the police killing of a Right Sector goon named Alexander Musytchko:

The circumstances of Musytchko’s killing recall the Röhm putsch through which Hitler eliminated the leadership of the SA storm troopers in 1934 after they had fulfilled their task, rather than any move towards the rule of law.

As expected, Global Research ran an article making an identical point: Ukraine’s “Brown Shirts”. Recalling Nazi Germany’s “Night of Long Knives”

And bringing up the rear is Alex Jones’s Infowars, a website cherished equally by 9/11 Truthers, the more intellectually challenged “anti-imperialists” and mouth-breathing American fascists: Ukraine’s Night of the Long Knives.

Call me old-fashioned, but when someone brings up the Night of the Long Knives, my tendency is to apply some historical rigor. As it turns out, I had written something about this incident in an article on the Goldhagen thesis, a Zionist-inspired attempt to make German anti-Semitism practically genetic in nature. My goal in the article was to historicize Nazism, which required looking at the wing of the Nazi led by Gregor Strasser that took Hitler’s anti-capitalist rhetoric a bit too seriously:

From 1934 to 1936, every expression of Nazi radicalism was suppressed. After the working-class was tamed in 1933, the petty-bourgeois supporters of a “People’s Revolution” were purged from the government one by one. The real economic program of the big bourgeoisie was rearmament. Any pretense at “rural socialism” was dispensed with and the Third Reich’s real goal became clear: preparation for a new European war. It needed coal, oil and other resources from Eastern Europe. It also needed to channel all investment into the armaments industry, which could act as a steam-engine for general capitalist recovery. In brief, the economic policy of the Nazi government started to look not that different from Franklin Roosevelt’s. It was World War Two, after all, that brought the United States out of the Great Depression, not ineffectual public works programs.

The purge of the most famous Nazi radicals, the Strasserites, was absolutely necessary in order to rid the movement of its plebeian aspects. Analysis of the Nazi Party has often tilted in the direction of portraying it as a mere tool of capital. The reality is more complex. The Nazis were a grass roots movement that targeted the workers movement, but there was a important anti-capitalist dimension as well. The explanation for the anti-capitalist component is simple. The capitalist class in Germany was despised. The ruin of the economy could be attributed to the Treaty of Versailles, the Jews, strikes, etc., but at a certain point one could not let the bourgeoisie off the hook. Too many of the petty-bourgeois supporters of the Nazis had deep resentment to one or another bank that had foreclosed on their farm or businesses.

“Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945” (edited by Michael Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann, Monthly Review, 1989) contains an interesting article “The NSDAP: An Alternative Elite for Capitalism in Crisis” by John D. Nagle. Nagle takes up the question of the nervousness of the big bourgeoisie with respect to the street-fighting, fanatical Nazi movement. One of the biggest anxieties was over the possibility that the Nazis represented a form of “national Bolshevism.” The Nazis called for the break-up of department store chains and railed against the big banks and insurance companies. They advocated a “People’s Revolution” in contradistinction to the proletarian revolution of the Marxist parties. However, the bourgeoisie is wary of any kind of revolution and preferred to see a stable Bonapartist government such as Hindenburg’s in power.

Hitler tried to reassure the big bourgeoisie in two ways. In private talks with the elites, he said that he had no intention of dismantling private property. And in June 1930 he threw Otto Strasser and his followers out of the Nazi party. Yet the influence of the Strasserites remained strong. Throughout the 1932 elections, the Nazi militants continued to employ anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Despite these measures, the ruling class continued to distrust the Nazis. It continued to fear the street-fighting army of the Sturmabeilung (or SA). In the early 1930s, its leader Ernst Rohm claimed not only military authority but political authority as well. The SA had attacked meetings and demonstrations of the left, but it had also attacked bourgeois parties as well.

Eventually the fears of the ruling class were assuaged and Hindenburg the Bonapartist decided to turn state power over to Hitler. Nagle suggests that the Protestant Church was a key factor in improving the public image of the Nazi party. The bourgeois press also began to view the Nazis as the only hope in the fight against Bolshevism. Once the Nazis took power, however, the dangers to the capitalist system from this party were no longer taken seriously. Hitler’s economic policy was conducted in close consultation with the ruling circles of big business and plebeian threats to the capitalist system were rooted up.

Now the fact that none of these conditions exist in Ukraine hardly matters to the Putinite herd. When the cops kill a neofascist leader, it automatically translates into the Night of the Long Knives. I understand that this should be obvious to anybody who has not drunk the Putinite Kool-Aid, but let me try to spell out the differences.

To start with, the present government of Ukraine is not fascist. It is instead neoliberal having much in common with a host of others across Europe, including Germany. Or maybe it would be more accurate to draw an analogy with the coalition government that ruled Austria from 2000 to 2005. It was made up of representatives from the Austrian People’s Party, a center-right formation very similar to the German Christian Democrats, and something called the Freedom Party of Austria. Does this Freedom Party ring a bell? It should. That was the party led by Jörg Haider that was exactly like Svoboda in Ukraine, a rightwing populist party that evoked fascist and anti-Semitic themes in its propaganda but that eschewed the sort of street violence true fascists like the Golden Dawn use. Suffice it to say, Austria survived the six years of the Freedom Party holding important government posts with no ill effects. This is not to minimize the role of parties like Haider’s or Svoboda, only to remind you that the mere presence of their representatives in government posts is not a sign that a new Third Reich is in the offing. The reason that the Kremlin is anxious to make comparisons with the Third Reich is obvious. It is designed to frighten the herd into a stampede. “Run for your lives, the Nazis are coming!”

A cool and dispassionate look at Germany in the summer of 1934, when the purge of the Strasserites occurred, will reveal very major differences with Ukraine today. To start with, Germany had become a full-fledge dictatorship with the elimination of a free press, parliamentary democracy, and the constitutional rights that prevailed during the Weimar Republic.

The Reichstag Fire occurred a year later. While there is a tendency to blame the Nazis for staging a “false flag” operation, the evidence indicates that a Communist acting alone was responsible. In any case, the fire was used as an excuse to crack down on German democratic rights, just the way that 9/11 was. The Communist Party was banned and its leaders arrested, including their Reichstag deputies.

Does anybody think that anything like this is about to happen in the Ukraine? It probably doesn’t matter. A lot of the analogies with Nazi Germany are not put forward in an effort to clarify things but to muddy them. The section of the left making these lazy and stupid comparisons has obviously lost the ability to think clearly.

Now in terms of repression, it would be good if these people would apply the same passion and energy to examining the entire record, and not just the material that serves their propaganda agenda. For example, I doubt that this will be of any interest to Alex Jones, Michel Chossudovsky or the idiots who run WSWS.org:

Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2014 5:50 p.m. ET

Killing of Crimean Tatar Activist Raises Fears in Community

By Philip Shishkin

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine— Reshat Ametov, an ethnic Tatar, was last seen alive on a central square here two weeks ago, protesting the Russian occupation of Crimea.

On Tuesday, family and friends, along with hundreds of strangers, attended his funeral. His naked corpse had been found three days earlier buried in a shallow, hastily dug ditch. The father of three, including a newborn girl, had been handcuffed and blindfolded. His head was wrapped with duct tape.

“He is the first Crimean Tatar who lost his life for the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said Artur Sotsky, a young man attending the funeral.

Mr. Ametov’s killing, while unsolved, raises questions about hundreds of pro-Russian militiamen and various affiliated irregulars, whose chain of command and identity appear blurry.

A police official declined to comment on what he called a continuing murder investigation.

At least 14 people, including journalists and anti-annexation activists, have gone missing in the region, according to an estimate by ATR, a Crimean Tatar television channel.

Mr. Ametov, a 39 year old construction worker, was angry over the Russian incursion into Crimea. His wife, Zarina Ametova, said he told her that there was a national mobilization going on, and that he wanted to go to the Simferopol’s draft office to report for duty.

He had a highly developed sense of injustice, friends and relatives say, at one point holding a hunger strike in a dispute with a local administration that left his house without electricity for a year.

There was no Ukrainian mobilization in Crimea. Later that day Mr. Ametov was seen on television video on a central square, where self-defense militiamen were guarding the headquarters of Crimea’s regional government.

“He told his friends that he was there to protest,” says Teifook Gafarov, a Tatar lawyer who represents the family. “There is a video of him being led away from the square by self-defense guys.”

The ISO’s secrecy fetish

Filed under: Counterpunch,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm
It’s Time for an Open and Transparent Left

The ISO’s Secrecy Fetish


The International Socialist Organization published an article on March 6th by Tim Koch titled “Openness” and the left that opposed making their internal documents public either voluntarily or involuntarily as was the case recently when digital versions of the bulletins from their most recent convention were circulated on the Internet. I can understand why this aspiring Leninist group was aggravated over this violation of their confidentiality because there were some rather embarrassing revelations about the ISO’s stagnation, as well as what some regarded as a damningly inadequate response to a party member’s sexual attack on a non-party member.

I dealt with the stagnation question in an earlier article for CounterPunch and will now turn to the questions raised by Tim Koch since they go to the heart of what kind of left needs to be built in 2014. As a general rule, I do not think that modeling yourself on the Russian Social Democracy is a very good idea, but that being the case maybe the ISO should reflect on how “internal” the discussions were in the party they are supposedly emulating.

In 1905 Lenin wrote an article blasting the Russian liberals for making their party documents secret:

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

Tim Koch and his comrades are used to thinking that Lenin’s faction—the Bolsheviks—was the real party in Czarist Russia as opposed to the fake socialists. However, its own members did not regard the Russian social democracy in such purist fashion, particularly Lenin who viewed the right-leaning Mensheviks and the centrists grouped around Leon Trotsky as part of the same plucky but unhappy family. From 1903, the time when factional divisions began to emerge, to 1917 when a definitive (and harmful, in my view) break occurred between the left and the right internationally, debates took place in the party newspapers on an ongoing basis, resembling a Marxist version of the food fight in “Animal House”. To get a flavor of the acrimony, just consider the title of Lenin’s 1911 article Judas Trotsky’s Blush of Shame. It was an ongoing flame war in full view of all Russian social democratic members, just the sort of thing that would give our present-day “Leninist” leaders nightmares.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/28/the-isos-secrecy-fetish/

March 26, 2014

Return to Homs

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:22 pm

“Return to Homs” has the distinction of not only being the first documentary made about the Syrian revolution but also being a work of great sensitivity, political insight and courage. I saw it last night at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the annual New Directors/New Films Festival and urge New Yorkers to see a screening at 9pm tonight at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. (The festival is jointly produced by MOMA and Lincoln Center.)

It is fairly easy to understand why this would be the first major documentary to emerge after three years of war. To start with, it is not easy to gain entrance to Syria through the normal channels. One must assume that director Talal Derki, a Syrian who lives in Germany, came across the border “illegally”. And once he was there, he took great risks in filming in an extremely dangerous location. From August of 2011 to August of 2013, he was on the front lines of the action in Homs with Syrian fighters being wounded or killed all around him, including some of the young men featured prominently in his film. But perhaps the key reason is that American documentary filmmakers, despite tacking to the left, saw little motivation in taking up the cause of “jihadists”. Not long after the early halcyon days of the Arab Spring, a consensus arose that the rebels were no better than the regime that they sought to overthrow. So naturally it would take a Syrian filmmaker to step forward and make the case for his oppressed countrymen. Abandoned by most of the world, including the left, it is up to the Syrians themselves to determine their own future.

In the opening scenes of “Return to Homs”, we meet the two young principals, star soccer goalkeeper Abdul Basset Saroot and media activist Ossama al Homsi. Both are paradigmatic figures. Basset leads mass rallies in the spring of 2011 in the streets of Homs using the distinctive Syrian call-and-response style. Meanwhile, Ossama is everywhere with his Sony video camera capturing the people as they dodge the snipers’ bullets while protesting peacefully. One might easily surmise that Ossama was a member of a Local Coordinating Committee, a grass roots network of young activists who used Youtube and social media to get the word out.

After Baathist killers cut down one too many peaceful protesters, the young men in Basset and Ossama’s circle decide to arm themselves and defend the movement. Ossama, however, feels that this is a mistake. Peaceful protest must prevail against all difficulties. Basset makes the case that most Syrians made, however. Even though taking up arms created its own risks, it was being forced upon them. They had no choice.

Once that decision was made, Homs became a living hell. Armed with nothing more powerful than AK-47’s and RPG’s, Basset and his comrades stood off tanks, jets, and heavy artillery. In excruciating detail, we see entire blocks of apartment houses turned into rubble, including those of Basset and Ossama. We see them in their former living rooms and kitchens, gazing at the wreckage. Ossama looks in vain for a filter for his Sony and only manages to retrieve a coffee mug. Both young men find themselves on the run as the siege of Homs tightens it grip. A sense of desperation develops even though Basset and the other young fighters vow to fight on despite all odds. In thinking about an analogy for their situation,  cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad during WWII, when Hitler’s forces killed both by bullet and by starvation, came to mind.

On February 12, 2014 the NY Times reported on the extraordinary achievement of “Return to Homs”. Using professional digital cameras and some Sony Handicams, the sort of modest device you bring with you on vacation, director Talal Derki and his fellow Syrian co-producer Orwa Nyrabia covered the critical phases of the struggle in Homs using their electronic gear in the same way that John Reed used his typewriter in Mexico and Czarist Russia. So modest were their means that they even lacked a credit card to pay for the registration fees at the Sundance Film Festival. Fortunately the organizers waived the fee.

When in Homs, they recharged their phones and laptops from car batteries and portable gasoline generators. They risked their lives to sneak past army checkpoints, and when things turned too deadly to continue, they taught Basset and his comrades how to use the Handycams. The footage was then smuggled out.

Of particular interest was the willingness of two veterans of the American film industry to show solidarity with Orwa Nyrabia when his life was in danger:

Mr. Nyrabia was detained at the Damascus airport on Aug. 23, 2012, and later accused of making a film with a terrorist. He was held for three weeks by military intelligence in an underground prison, he said, thrown together with 84 younger Syrians, most of them conscripts apparently reluctant to shoot fellow Syrians. “They had blinked before shooting,” he said.

His fellow inmates were deferential, Mr. Nyrabia said. “They wouldn’t make me queue for the bathroom because I was considered very old.” [Nyrabia is 36!]

Mr. Nyrabia, who now lives in Berlin, attributed his release to pressure on the Syrian government from international publicity about his disappearance. A group of prominent filmmakers and Hollywood celebrities including Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, along with members of 24 international and American cinema associations and unions, signed a petition demanding that the Syrian authorities free Mr. Nyrabia.

While Syria’s government routinely ignores demands by Western political leaders, Mr. Nyrabia said, “when it’s De Niro or Scorsese, that’s embarrassing.”

It is too bad that the American left has less interest than such luminaries in showing such solidarity.

One can only hope that general distribution of “Return to Homs” might help to change some minds. It is about as powerful a testimony to the heart and soul of one of the great revolutionary struggles of the past half-century, as determined in its own way as the Vietnamese fight to rid its country of colonialism. When you see a young man like Basset with no military training  challenging a tank with nothing more than a machine gun, you understand that freedom is more precious to him than life itself.

In the Q&A, director Talal Derki mentioned that his next film will be about Syria’s struggle against a new threat that is as inimical to freedom as the Baathist dictatorship: the Islamic fundamentalists of ISIS and similar militias. Since he will be at the Q&A tonight as well, I urge New Yorkers to try to make to Lincoln Center. It will be your film experience of the year.


March 25, 2014

Anotol Lieven on the Ukraine

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

This is from chapter three of Anatol Lieven’s 1999 “Ukraine & Russia: a fraternal rivalry”. Over the years I have found Lieven’s reporting quite reliable. In this remarkable passage, he undercuts the talking points of the pro-Putin left by ascribing the predisposition to radical right-wing nationalism almost exclusively to Galicia. And contrary to expectations, it is this rather thinly populated province that is most hostile to economic “reform”. It should be mentioned that Lieven is quite hostile to socialism despite being a very good reporter.


Those who have seen a clear black-and-white divide between east and west Ukraine have missed three important elements of Ukrainian political geography: the fact that nationalist Galicia does not make up the whole of “west Ukraine” and that its specific variant of nationalism has very limited cultural and economic appeal outside its own region, the critical importance of central Ukraine, and the divisions within the whole of the Russian-speaking area.

What is often described as “west Ukraine” in more superficial Western analyses really only applies to Galicia and to a lesser extent Volhynia—the two provinces that were part of Poland until 1939 and in the case of Galicia had previously been subject to Austria (and had been under Catholic influence since the Middle Ages). Galicia also suffered a brutal Russian military occupation during the First World War, followed by a ruthless Soviet antipartisan struggle after 1944.

As repeated election results have shown, it is only in these regions (and to some degree in the city of Kiev, because of its large concentration of nationalist intelligentsia and civil servants) that support for a radical, ethnic-based, and potentially antidemocratic version of Ukrainian nationalism is really overwhelming. This is not true even of the immediately neighboring regions, whether Transcarpathia on the Hungarian border to the southwest of Galicia, or Khmelnitsky and Ziwtomyr to the east. Furthermore, Galicia is relatively small: The city of Lviv had a population of 787,000 according to the census of 1989; but the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk together) had a population of more than 7 million.

Consequently, many genuinely patriotic Ukrainians elsewhere in Ukraine regard radical nationalism as a specifically Galician product, heavily influenced by the Polish and Uniate tradition, and culturally and historically separate from the rest of (Orthodox or previously Orthodox) Ukraine. A common insulting term for the Galician nationalists in eastern Ukraine is “the Pans,” after the Polish word for “mister” and previously for “lord” (this is especially hurtful because the Galician Ukrain-ian nationalists actually originated and spent much of their history in bitter struggles with the Poles).

Critics also point out—and quite rightly—that Galician nationalism is not “more Western” simply because it is geographically closer to Central Europe; the Central Europe from which Galician nationalism derived was that of the 1890s to the 1930s, and isolation under Soviet rule has hindered its modernization.

Galician and Galician-style Ukrainian nationalism today does indeed retain certain worrying features of the extreme “integral” nationalism of the 1930s. These elements were played down in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the nationalist umbrella organization Rukh seemed to have a brief chance of appealing to a majority of Ukrainians and of coming to power. However, with Rukh’s failure, extremist platforms have resurfaced in some of the various nationalist parties.

The result is not just that aspects of Galician Ukrainian nationalism today remain worryingly extreme and ethnicist, but also that Galicians are actually behind, not ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to some aspects of economic reform—as the International Finance Corporation found to its surprise in the case of privatization. Having set up its first regional project office in Lviv because it assumed privatization would go fastest there, it then discovered that it was actually in the east where the local administrative elites showed the greatest interest (or rather, self-interest) and dynamism in this regard.

One aspect of this Galician distinctiveness is language: Galicians sometimes claim to speak the “purest” Ukrainian, and this has been reiterated by some Western observers. In fact, the Ukrainian dialect on which modern literary and educational Ukrainian has been based is situated not unnaturally in the center of the country, in the region of Poltava. The people of that region regard the dialect of Galicia as a heavily PoIonized version of Ukrainian, just as they regard the language spoken in much of eastern and southern Ukraine, Surzhik, as a cross between Ukrainian and Russian —which indeed it is. It is this central region of Ukraine—and not the west or the east—that has provided the dominant elements in the Ukrainian administrations since independence (both Presidents Kravchuk and Kuchma come from this region, as do all of their likely successors), and could be said to have saved the country. If Galicia and the Russian-speaking areas of Donetsk or Kharkiv—let alone Crimea—had been geographically contiguous to each other, the unity and peace of Ukraine would have been in serious doubt, given the very real hatreds that exist between the ordinary people of these areas.

But in the words of Grigory Nemiria, sweeping his hand over a map, “Fortunately, Lviv is at that end, Donetsk at this end, and there is all this space in-between.” The two areas are separated by a broad belt of territory, five hundred miles wide and stretching from Khmelnitsky to Dnipro-petrovsk, in which most of the people, although ethnically Ukrainian (and mostly Ukrainian-speaking) and committed to Ukrainian independence, have a much milder and less ethnic version of Ukrainian nationalism and a much calmer and friendlier attitude toward Russians. Thus in 1994, while Kravchuk got more than 60 percent of the vote in Galicia and Volhynia, and Kuchma a majority in the east and south, neither candidate achieved a majority in the eight central regions.

March 23, 2014

Snapshots of Crimean Tatar history

Filed under: Crimean Tatars,national question,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm


Katherine the Great, Stalin and Putin: cut from the same cloth as far as the Crimean Tatars are concerned

Back in 1966 I signed up for group therapy with Louise Potts, an “art therapist” in her 70s who a number of Bard graduates had begun to see. I was in the same group as Daniel Pinkwater, an art major who became famous for his witty children’s books and NPR commentaries. Pinkwater lived in a loft next to my building in Hoboken and we used to spend a lot of time hanging out.

I stopped going to see Mrs. Potts after my post-Bard depression had lifted. When they said that the “real world” was different from Bard, they weren’t kidding. Breaking up with my girlfriend and facing the draft made the adjustment to living alone in NYC and studying philosophy at the New School an even bigger challenge.

I have vivid memories of the therapy sessions in which after scribbling something on a big sheet of paper you were expected to fill it in as recognizable drawing. Supposedly this was the equivalent of a waking dream (not that the interpretation of dreams ever made much difference in “curing” a neurotic.)

Daniel’s drawings always made mine look crude by comparison. Eventually he was eclipsed by another art major, a woman in her early 20s named Lily. She was a Crimean Tatar who had suffered the lot of a “displaced person” throughout the 50s after her parents had been expelled from her homeland. Mrs. Potts believed that Lily’s depression had a lot to do with her family situation even though it had stabilized after they moved to the USA.

Two years later I was in the SWP and reading about the suffering of the Tatars in Intercontinental Press, a magazine edited by Joe Hansen that covered the activities of Russian dissidents, including General Pyotr Grigorenko, a decorated WWII hero of Ukrainian descent. As punishment for his advocacy of Crimean Tatar rights, including repatriation into their homeland, he was stripped of his military rank, privileges and pension and then sent to a mental hospital for two years. In 1971, a Jewish psychiatrist Dr. Semyon Gluzman wrote a report finding Grigorenko sane and concluding that his hospitalization was a form of repression. For his efforts, Gluzman was rewarded with seven years in labor camp and then three years in Siberian exile. Unlike Joe Hansen and the SWP, most people on the Maoist left backed the Soviet bureaucrats for the same sorts of reasons so many “anti-imperialists” are backing Putin today. If imperialism was applauding Grigorenko’s efforts, that was reason enough to jail him in a mental hospital and to make any psychiatrist pay dearly for a report that deemed the General sane.

Mostly as a way of familiarizing myself with Tatar history, I speed read Alan Fisher’s “The Crimean Tatars”, one of the few authoritative books on the topic. As it turns out, the Tatars are a Turkic people—something that makes me even more sympathetic to them since I have a great affection for the average Turk as opposed to the problematic leadership they have endured for a hundred years or so.

The Tatars settled into the Crimean peninsula back in the fourteenth century under a so-called khanate. Their first great leader was a man named Haci Giray who created an independent state that relied heavily on Ottoman support. Giray was a descendant of Genghis Khan but was far more similar to the more settled and urban character of the Ottoman rulers than the Mongol Golden Horde of nomad conquerors. For example, Giray lived in a castle that was like a smaller version of the Topkapi rather than a tent.

As was the case in the Ottoman Empire proper, non-Muslims conducted business, trading, shipping, and personal finance under Tatar rule and paid a tax for these privileges. And as was typical as well, the non-Muslim enjoyed a level of freedom and tolerance that was remarkable for the age. Fisher reports that Karaim Jews spoke a Turkic language, lived according to Turkic traditions, and even sang purely Turkic songs.

This was by no means a paradise but life generally went well for the citizens for a couple of hundred years until Russia developed an interest in the region. Katherine the Great, a relatively enlightened Czarina, decided to annex Crimea in the same empire-building spirit that led her to launch incursions into the southern Caucasus territories. You can get an idea of the changes in Crimean demographics from this chart that appears in Wikipedia:

Screen shot 2014-03-23 at 3.13.06 PM

The Tatars are green, the Ukrainians yellow and the Russians red. So clearly what has happened from the time of Katherine the Great (the late 1700s) throughout the 19th century is a dramatic removal of the Tatars from their homeland. The slight uptick in green toward the far right of the graph reflects the repatriation victory won by the Crimean Tatars. The question, of course, is whether this was similar to Stalin’s wholesale expulsion or something less genocidal.

It was less genocidal but by no means benign. How could emigration ever be benign, after all? As is so often the case, the Russians opted to bring Crimea under its control by using a puppet, in this instance a khan named Sahin Giray. After instituting some reforms intended to “Westernize” the khanate, and deeply unpopular with the masses—including being subject to the Russian military draft—Giray was put under house arrest in St. Petersburg.

Once Crimea was annexed, Katherine began colonizing the region with non-Muslims. This was partly responsible for the demographic changes. There were also reasons for the Tatars to flee, particularly in the period following the Crimean war when Russia was defeated by a coalition of armies including the Ottomans and the British. Despite Russia’s loss, many Tatars fled, especially the elites, because of a fear that there would be reprisals against them even though many fought courageously for the Czardom.

Just as would happen in the Middle East under Zionist colonization, non-Tatars were lured into settling in Crimea with cash awards and the mass expulsions of Tatar peasants.

By 1917, the Tatars constituted only 30 percent of the Crimean peninsula. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks claimed that it favored the self-determination of oppressed nationalities, the tumult of the civil war made it difficult to put this into practice.

In 1921 Lenin wrote a comrade:

In all autonomous republics, the Tatar Republic in this case, there are two clearly distinct trends (groupings) among the native Communists (Tatars): one of them takes the standpoint of class struggle and works for further class differentiation of the sections of the native population, and the other has a shade of petty-bourgeois nationalism….

The petty-bourgeois nationalism is an obvious reference to the preference for SR and Menshevik politicians among the Tatars, a most unfortunate choice given the polarization following October 1917.

Celebi Cihan was one such “petty bourgeois nationalist”. As leader of the Milli Farka Party, he spoke for its key demands: nationalization of the church and private property, opposition to the conservative clergy, breaking off contacts with the Russian liberals, and closer cooperation with the Russian social democracy.

Despite these sympathies, the Milli Farka was considered an enemy of Soviet power. In February 1918, the Chekha arrested Cehin and put him in front of a firing squad. Afterwards they threw his body into the Black Sea. And this was during the “heroic” period of Communist rule. It should be mentioned that the Bolshevik heading up such repression was none other than Bela Kuhn, the man who also helped to sabotage the German revolution.

It was such actions that led some of the Tatars to collaborate with the German contingent that was part of the invasion force fighting alongside the White Army, just as they would collaborate with the Nazis during WWII.

In a bold attempt to reverse the disastrous policies being pursued by Bela Kuhn, the Soviet Union created an autonomous socialist republic for the Crimean Tatars in 1923 and had the good sense to put Veli Ibramihov in charge. Ibramihov had been a member of the left wing of the Milli Farka and had evolved toward Bolshevik politics. Ibramihov followed a number of enlightened policies:

  • Crimean Tatars were elevated into responsible positions in the autonomous republic’s government.
  • “War Communism” policies that severely affected Tatar peasants were reversed.
  • Tatarization would be implemented on all levels, including the reopening of Tatar-language schools, scientific institutes, museums, libraries and theaters.

Despite Ibramihov’s nationalist leanings, he never for one minute displayed secessionist tendencies. He and the Crimean Tatar people had the misfortune to have encountered Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism just a few years after these policies were adopted. In 1927 Stalin decided to create an autonomous Jewish republic in the south of Crimea that would be seeded with 3500 “colonists” who would displace the Tatars. (I have written with some pleasure about this kind of project in another part of the USSR. At the time I had not considered the possible collateral damage to the indigenous population.)

After Ibramihov wrote a letter to Stalin complaining about the abridgement of Tatar rights, he was arrested on the charge of being a “bourgeois nationalist” and executed on May 9, 1928.

In my view, there is a red thread that runs from Katherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea, to Kuhn and Stalin’s repression, to Putin’s annexation once again of Crimea. He is basically reprising Katherine’s colonizing tendencies while justifying it in the name of “anti-imperialism” in faux Bolshevik style.

Long-time British Trotskyist (but of a very benign nature) Murray Smith has written a useful article (http://links.org.au/node/3773) that makes the Putin/Romanov connection (Katherine the Great was of course a Romanov). It is about Putin’s desire to reconstitute the traditional Great Russian hegemony over that part of the world even if it has to be realized over the dead bodies of lesser nationalities. Here is Smith:

In 1913, the third centenary of the dynasty of the Romanovs was celebrated with great pomp. Four years later, revolution had thrown them into history’s garbage bin. Definitively, so it seemed. But no. After the fall of the USSR, they were exhumed, literally and figuratively. In 2000, Tsar Nicolas II, known in his time as Bloody Nicolas and a great lover of anti-Jewish pogroms, was canonised.

And, in 2013, Russia celebrated the fourth centenary of the Romanovs. What was showcased and taught to schoolchildren, with supporting interactive maps, was the role of this dynasty in the expansion of the Russian empire. And it’s true: under the Romanovs, from Ukraine to the Baltic countries, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, Russia built up its empire by methods no less barbaric than those used by the British, French and other imperialists all over the world.

When he came to power in 2000, Putin was preoccupied by the decline of Russia and swore to restore the authority of the state, something he has largely achieved. This translates into “guided democracy”, growing control of the mass media, suppression of any serious dissidence and a policy of rearmament.

The whole against a backdrop of Great Russian chauvinism — that ideology which Lenin so detested and against which he fought tirelessly. And which today is broadly shared in the Russian political universe, from the extreme right of Zhirinovsky to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).


March 22, 2014

Grace Lee Boggs; The Hypnotic Brothers

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Two documentaries arriving in New York this week are stirring testaments to the political and cultural heritage of the Black community. Ironically, the first—“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”—that opened yesterday at the AMC Loew’s on 19th Street is about a 98 year old Chinese-American woman whose entire political life was so enmeshed with the Detroit Black struggle that everybody regarded her as an African-American. The other film is “Brothers Hypnotic”, a film about the young sons of an alumnus of the Son Ra Orchestra who formed a brass ensemble that simultaneously reflects their father’s Black consciousness while stubbornly sticking to its own musical agenda. It opens on Monday at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, the go-to place for outstanding documentaries engaged with the Black experience.

For those who follow my film reviews, you are probably aware that I avoid the kind of hyperbolic praise that gets attached to those full-page ads in the NY Times. So when I tell you that “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” is the greatest documentary about an American leftist I have ever seen, I mean it. Granted that they are far and few between, this is still a movie that had me spellbound from beginning to end. It reminded me—and would remind anybody who ever passed out a leaflet—what it means to challenge the system and why such a life is so much worth living, no matter how many times your nose gets bloodied in the process.

Grace Lee Boggs, the daughter of a man who owned a successful Chinese restaurant, began studying at Barnard College just as the Great Depression was at its deepest point. Like so many other children of privilege, she decided that her lot was with the unemployed and the working class. But unlike most of her peers, she gravitated toward the Trotskyist movement rather than the CP. Obtaining a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940, she found herself deeply influenced by Hegel and particularly the role of the dialectic that she thought useful in understanding capitalist society. This Hegelian predisposition naturally led her to the Workers Party shortly after hearing CLR James speak in Chicago. James had been a co-leader of the “Johnson-Forrest” tendency in the SWP (he was Johnson and Raya Dunayevskaya was Forrest) and a leading theorist of the Black struggle.

The film does not really delve too deeply in the Byzantine twists and turns of the Trotskyist movement (broadly defined) but James and Dunayevskaya broke with the Workers Party because of what they considered its foot-dragging in the Black struggle and rejoined the SWP in 1947. In 1950 the Johnson-Forrest tendency abandoned the SWP and set up shop as the Correspondence group, named after their magazine.

One of the more important members of the Correspondence group was James Boggs, a working-class African-American from the Deep South who after meeting Grace Lee wasted no time in proposing marriage. The Boggs’s closest collaborator was Marty Glaberman who was the editor of the magazine.

Chinese-American director Grace Lee’s first film was “The Grace Lee Project”, an attempt to find namesakes who defied the stereotype of an Asian woman who was as Rotten Tomatoes described it: “a quiet, studious over-achiever who was cheerful, Christian, and never got into trouble.” Nobody could be more unalike from that than Grace Lee Boggs who not only didn’t think of herself as Chinese but also was just one step ahead of being thrown in jail as a subversive. The new film includes footage of the 2005 documentary with a spry 84-year-old Grace Lee Boggs walking so fast that the director could barely keep up with her.

“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” includes a generous helping of James Boggs footage, a man I regret never having read. When the couple moved to Detroit, James took a job at Chrysler in order to understand the changes in the working class as well as changes in the industry. This was not a “colonization” effort but much more of an attempt to make a living while conducting research on the class struggle. Boggs wrote a book titled “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook” that includes some of the earliest insights into the role that automation would play in the capitalist system. It is interesting that both he and Harry Braverman, another defector from Trotskyist dogmatism, would explore such a major transformation of American capitalism during its infancy.

Grace Lee Boggs is nowhere near as spry today as she was in 2005 but her mind is as sharp as it ever was. The film shows her interacting with young activists for whom she is a legendary figure. Although Detroit has pretty much become “Destroit” as SWP comrades from that city used to refer to it in the 1970s, she remains optimistic about its future. Her most recent projects include community gardening and safe street initiatives seemingly different from her more militant activism of 50 years ago but that still incorporate her deepest humanistic impulses.

Toward the end of the film, there is a fascinating exchange between the director and her subject over her unceasing optimism. Doesn’t she have any regrets about what she did with her life, including her decision not to have children? And how could she feel fulfilled when so many of her projects withered on the vine?

In 1999 Paul Buhle wrote a review of her memoir “Living for Change” that addressed the question of the disjunction between goals and the achievements that is worth quoting:

Lee herself moved to Detroit in 1953, married black auto worker James Boggs, and commenced a life of unceasing local activism. Much of the rest of Living For Change settles into a detailed description of personal life that defies summarization, but offers a rewarding, intimate study of ideas and activities in the cauldron of race and class contradictions during the 1950s-1990s. I remember once calling Detroit information without Grace’s home address and the telephone operator exclaiming, “You mean Grace Boggs!” It is no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of Detroiters regarded the couple as perennially scrappy but beloved members of an extended family.

In some ways the story is heartbreaking. The group around C.L.R James disintegrated and one by one, the Boggses broke with their erstwhile comrades over personal and political differences. The early promise of the civil rights movement, which so roused black Detroit and the Boggs’ supporters, was stifled by the waves of massively destructive “urban renewal,” suburbanization and plant closings, bringing increased poverty and despair. New organizations, like the groupings around the Manifesto for a Black Political Party and their own National Organization for an American Revolution, failed after making a contribution to educating young (especially black) radicals through pamphlets, study groups and endless personal appearances by the two at conferences. In the end, as once-radical mayor Coleman Young bowed to the corporations to keep Detroit afloat, and the black middle class followed whites in abandoning the inner city, the Boggses with the rest of the Left were outgunned, bypassed by the postindustrial recklessness of capitalism.

But Grace Lee Boggs was never one to be kept down by mere defeats. As memorable volumes by James Boggs for MR Press pushed beyond received truths to creative adaptation-sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always creative-race found new ways to make herself useful. ln identifying with the black community for decades, she emerged during the 1970s-1980s as a public speaker and intimate advisor for (and to) Asian-American Studies. Meanwhile, she joined with other community activists in new coalitions against drugs, violence, and casino-gambling in Detroit, among many other causes. Ossie Davis catches the spirit when he says about her story, ” Here is a book for the hungering heart, or even a picnic.” With Grace Lee Boggs, it could not be otherwise.

My very highest recommendation for “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”.

In one of the more memorable comments from Grace Lee Boggs in the aforementioned film that dates from the early 60s, she says that Blacks are not trying to become equal to whites but equal to the image they have in their mind of a fulfilled and free Black American.

That would describe Phil Cohran to a tee. Born in 1927, he was a successful jazz musician who turned his back on moneymaking gigs and founded the Affro-Arts Theater and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago during the 1960s, projects associated with cultural and political challenges to the status quo.

The Affro-Arts Theater was a regular venue for Black militants, so much so that it became the obsession of the local Red Squad. After Stokely Carmichael spoke there, the cops convinced a judge to shut it down.

His personal life was just as radical as his artistic life. In addition to the eight children he fathered with one wife, he initiated relationships with two other women who moved into his Chicago home. At one point twenty-four of their offspring were living with Phil and his three wives in a sort of benign version of Philadelphia’s MOVE. The house was a vegetarian and Black consciousness haven dedicated most of all to the religion of Black music, particularly jazz. As luck would have it, all three women were trained musicians.

8 of the Cohran boys would study brass instruments from an early age. Like any other young men, they rebelled against their father without any likely nod to Freud’s Oedipal Complex. Instead the rebellion was based on their own ideas about what kind of music they would play.

The band they formed, Brothers Hypnotic, was an eclectic blend of jazz, gospel, hip-hop and what sounds to my ears a lot like Gabrieli—with a complex polyphonic texture. They started off as a street band but later evolved into a more conventional concert venue act that toured Europe and performed with stars like Prince and Mos Def.

Directed by first-timer Reuben Atlas, the film adheres pretty much to concert tour documentaries that have been made about groups like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Most of it consists of performances or the musicians talking about music and their lives.

What they seem to share with their father after all is said and done is a fierce independence of mind that makes them wary of becoming just another band signed with a commercial label. Unlike so many hip-hop artists with a crass devotion to filthy lucre, the Hypnotic Brothers are committed above all to their artistic vision. As such, this documentary has inspirational value in a period of history lacking much in the way of inspiration.

March 21, 2014

The People Want

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 11:54 am
Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 21-23, 2014

What Do the Arab People Want?

Is a Real Revolution Possible in the Arab World?


At first blush, the term “Arab Winter” makes sense given the restoration of military rule in Egypt, Syria’s descent into sectarian chaos, and Libya’s coming apart at the seams. Can a case be made for guarded optimism, however? If so, then there is probably nobody more qualified to make it than Gilbert Achcar, the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region whose 2013 study “The People Want” attempts to get beneath surface impressions, especially those based on changing seasons. If Marxism seems deeply troubled as a political movement and lacks a sizable contingent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it still has a use as an analytical tool. Owing much to its Hegelian roots, the dialectical method at the heart of Marxism is ideally suited to resolving contradictions. And no other region in the world is more riven with contradictions than MENA, arguably the source of its failure as of yet to deliver on the promises of 2011.

In a September 4, 2013 article for “Guernica” titled “What is a Revolution”, Tariq Ali adopted a rather frosty tone in sizing up the undelivered promises of the region, described mostly as a failure to qualify as a genuine revolution. He wrote that only “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change” could qualify as a revolution. Now, of course, there was a time in which Tariq Ali would have been more generous with movements that were so lacking, including many of the national liberation movements he embraced as a young radical. Using his yardstick, Vietnam had no revolution when it drove out the American imperialists.  Just look at the millionaires in Vietnam today, profiting off of sweatshops. But that is no argument for not protesting against B-52 bombing raids and Operation Phoenix. If Ali was referring to the classical socialist revolution that have been far and few between since 1917, rarer in some ways than the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that was supposedly last spotted in Arkansas back in 2005, he certainly had a point even if it did not do justice to the social realities of Egypt, Syria, or Libya.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/21/is-a-real-revolution-possible-in-the-arab-world/

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.