Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 30, 2014

John V. Walsh, Ralph Nader and the right-left alliance — no thanks

Filed under: right-left convergence — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

john walshDr. John V. Walsh

On June 16th John V. Walsh declared his support for Ralph Nader’s urging the left to learn from Tea Party leader David Brat’s victory over Eric Cantor in Virginia. These two characters are on the front lines calling for a right-left alliance.

Walsh, a Professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has been around the left for well over a decade, showing up at Left Forums and writing for leftist websites like CounterPunch and DissidentVoice. Although he describes himself as a “man of the left”, most of his energy is devoted to the cause of the Ron Paul wing of the Republican Party. In an article for a New Hampshire newspaper titled “Thoughts of a doctor driving for Dr. Paul”, Walsh puts it this way:

I am certainly a man of the Left. My support for Dr. Paul has had surprising effects in my personal life, with some friends no longer eager to talk with me. And yes, I have my differences with Dr. Paul. For example, I would like to have Medicare for all — national health insurance. But Dr. Paul’s commitment to civil liberties means that I can quarrel with him over this. I will be able to make my case and he his in open discussion and vote. What more can one ask in a democracy?

So I will work for Ron Paul, a man of principle and consistency. I hope that others of my conviction will do likewise. War and empire threaten our existence more than any possible environmental catastrophe. If we continue on our present path, sooner or later we will stumble into a world war trying to “save the world.” If we turn away from this path, we can create a paradise on earth. Let’s take the right path and bring America home.

What utter stupidity.

Walsh says that he can “quarrel” with Ron Paul over Medicare for all as if public policy in the United States is a fucking debate club event at an Ivy League school. Does this guy have any idea of the power of corporations over such decisions? Does he have an analysis of capitalism? Maybe the fact that he is a professor at a medical school earning a $150K a year makes him less sensitive to class distinctions than someone in Ron Paul’s district who made $15K a year.

This is Ron Paul on raising the minimum wage:

Raising minimum wages by government decree appeals to those who do not understand economics. This appeal is especially strong during times of stagnant wages and increased economic inequality. But raising the minimum wage actually harms those at the bottom of the income ladder. Basic economic theory teaches that when the price of a good increases, demand for that good decreases. Raising the minimum wage increases the price of labor, thus decreasing the demand for labor. So an increased minimum wage will lead to hiring freezes and layoffs. Unskilled and inexperienced workers are the ones most often deprived of employment opportunities by increases in the minimum wage.

But don’t get all hot and bothered by the class war against the poor as long as Ron Paul opposes imperialist war. There is of course a long tradition for this kind of anti-imperialism. If you go back to the original Anti-Imperialist League in the United States, you will discover that Andrew Carnegie was a member, the steel magnate who called in a small army of Pinkerton guards to break a strike at his Homestead plant in 1892.

Another prominent member was former Democratic Party president Grover Cleveland who opposed empire-building moves by Republican presidents. Our kind of guy, right? Well, not exactly. Cleveland pushed for the Dawes Act that divided up Indian land to individual members of the tribes, a piece of legislation that allowed “excess” land to be sold to non-Indians. Now some hair-splitting Marxists like me view such a policy as consistent with an internal colonialism that goes back to the time of Washington and Jefferson but not if you think—as Ron Paul does—that private property is sacrosanct.

Since Walsh is just as enthusiastic over Rand Paul as he is over his father, one imagines that he would have no complaints about junior’s carrying on in the Grover Cleveland tradition as Indian Country reported on February 8, 2011:

But Paul isn’t worried about broken treaties. He’s fretting about broken U.S. piggy banks. Whether he’s doing away with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (which subsidizes tribal reservation home building) or cutting the Department of Agriculture’s food stamp program (which disproportionately aids Indian families), it’s all part of his ruthless plan to shrink the ever-growing federal deficit.

But that’s okay. Since Rand Paul is for free speech, John V. Walsh can persuade him to go easy on the survivors of 500 years of genocide.

Like fellow anti-imperialist Andrew Carnegie, Grover Cleveland showed his mettle in standing up to the unruly workers. In 1894 Eugene V. Debs led workers at Pullman, the manufacturers of railroad passenger cars, out on a militant strike. To protect the interests of his class, Cleveland ordered the army to break the strike, resulting in the death of 30 men and wounding hundreds of others. After he was arrested for his role in the strike, Debs read Karl Marx in prison and became a committed socialist. Those are the sorts of people I identify with, not scum like Grover Cleveland and the Pauls.

Turning now to Ralph Nader’s article, there is a depressing sense that the old man has completely lost his way. My worries began after he came out with a book titled “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us” that was described on Amazon.com as a:

vivid fictional account by political activist and bestselling author Ralph Nader that answers the question, “What if?” What if a cadre of superrich individuals tried to become a driving force in America to organize and institutionalize the interests of the citizens of this troubled nation?

The naiveté incorporated in this blurb staggers the mind. It is based on press conferences by the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and other plutocrats worrying about the state of the nation. Here are the opening words of this ludicrous work of fiction:

In the cozy den of the large but modest house in Omaha where he has lived since he started on his first billion, Warren Buffett watched the horrors of Hurricane Katrina unfold on television in early September 2005. . . . On the fourth day, he beheld in disbelief the paralysis of local, state, and federal authorities unable to commence basic operations of rescue and sustenance, not just in New Orleans, but in towns and villages all along the Gulf Coast. . . He knew exactly what he had to do. . .

In a nutshell, Nader is reprising the “message” of many a Dickens novel with some rich bastard like Ebenezer Scrooge having a change of heart. Maybe it’s too bad that Nader hadn’t been thrown in jail at some point in his life and accidentally stumbling across Karl Marx like Debs did. Then again, the words might have been lost on this man whose ideology seems like the bastard spawn of a marriage between Thomas Jefferson and Frank Capra.

Nader finds himself in an advanced state of intoxication over David Brat’s anti-corporate demagogy:

First, among all the reasons for Cantor’s fall, there were the ones encapsulated in the Nation’s John Nichols’ description of Brat as an “anti-corporate conservative.” Repeatedly, Brat said he was for “free enterprise” but against “crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.” David Brat pointed out that Cantor and the Republican establishment have “been paying way too much attention to Wall Street and not enough to Main Street.”

This, of course, is the stock and trade today of ultraright politicians across the planet. The Tea Party is evidently learning from groups like Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik Party that lays down the “anti-capitalist” rhetoric as good as the original Nazis. Straight from the Jobbik website (http://www.jobbik.com/policies):

Across the world a global capitalism based on the free movement of multinational capital has broken down. Billions have been made destitute, and ever widening gulfs have grown in societies. In Hungary the effects of this crisis have been greatly magnified, given an environment made noxious by the workings of a politics that has been both nefarious and corrupt.

As long as the domination of profit does not rob it of the opportunity of doing so, the Hungarian nation is quite capable of thriving on the produce of its own homeland; provided of course that relations between countries are also permitted to be ruled by considerations of cooperation, equality, and solidarity, rather than a rule of acquisition that demands that one subjugates the other.

Since the Tea Party is notoriously anti-immigrant, Brat’s positions might have shown up on Ralph Nader’s radar. Unfortunately, he adapts to them:

He [Brat] chastised Cantor on immigration, taking advantage of the latter’s wavering appeal to voters who believe that large corporations, represented by Cantor, want a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor to hold wages down. On the other hand, Brat opposes a minimum wage on libertarian grounds.

I don’t see the point of “on the other hand”. The two positions go together. Demagogy about a “never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor” and opposition to a minimum wage go together like bread and butter.

Finally, Nader gets to the point. In the emerging right-left alliance that he and John V. Walsh have been stumping for, the Brat victory is a harbinger of future possibilities:

Brat is a mixed bag for progressives. But in that mix is a clear populist challenge by Main Street against Wall Street and by ordinary people against the corporate government with subsidies and bailouts that the Left calls corporate welfare and the Right calls crony capitalism. Therein lies the potential for a winning majority alliance between Left and Right as my new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, relates in realistic detail.

I wonder what Nader really has in mind when he calls for dismantling the corporate state. Going back to Jefferson’s time and creating an America based on small farmers and mom-and-pop general stores? I understand why Nader would raise such utopia hopes. With a working class that is quiescent and a feeling among the educated elites like Nader and Paul Krugman that something has to be done—as long as it is not socialism—there will be one snake-oil prescription after another. That’s been true of capitalist society going back for centuries. At some point, the workers will step forward to defend their own class interests. I make no prediction as to when this will happen but I am damned sure that objective conditions will force them to struggle against the Andrew Carnegies, Grover Clevelands, and Ron Pauls of this world.


June 29, 2014

2014 New York Asian Film Festival

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Screen shot 2014-06-29 at 2.59.57 PM

Last Friday night the NY Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) opened in New York. This is the thirteenth year for the annual event, one that I have been covering from its inception. After some general comments on Asian film, I will conclude with a review of “The White Storm”, a festival film showing at Walter Reade Theater tonight.

Unlike the Indian Film Festival that I covered a month ago, this one features movies that are geared to local audiences rather than Western film festivals and theaters specializing in indie and foreign films. So the typical NYAFF film will be about samurais or gangsters while one from the Indian film festival will be about the plight of Dalits. I would have preferred that the NYAFF curators include more political films but I confess that I am not even aware that they are being made. From what I have gleaned from the Japanese film industry over the past five years or so, there are very few—if any—directors or screenwriters in the Akira Kurosawa or Yoji Yamada tradition nowadays. Perhaps if there were a stronger left in Japan or Hong Kong for that matter, we’d see films being made with a social and political message.

That being said, I am totally devoted to Hong Kong and Japanese gangster and samurai films. In an age when Hollywood “entertainment” means the latest Michael Bay movie, we are better off with a lobotomy. I thought that Atlantic Magazine’s Christopher Orr got the latest installment of “Transformers” just right: “If it truly takes this long to save the world from the depredations of robots that turn into muscle cars, it may be that the world is no longer worth saving.”

It would appear that my first article on Asian action films dates back to July 3, 2003, just two years after the launch of the NYAFF:

Hit Men Movies

 posted to http://www.marxmail.org on July 3, 2003

 I had selected Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 “Le Samouraï” and Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s 2001 “Fulltime Killer” pretty much at random from the local video store. But comparisons between these two ‘noirs’ involving hit men and the cops who pursue them began to suggest themselves immediately. Especially after ‘fulltime killer’ Tok (Andy Lau), whose main interest outside of killing people on contract is movies, berates a thug for never having seen “Le Samouraï”.

 Melville’s Parisian hit man is improbably named Jef Costello. Played by Alain Delon, this character has the same laconic charisma as the just as improbably named master burglar Corey he played in Melville’s 1970 “Le Cercle Rouge”, a film I reviewed a while back (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/Le_Cercle_Rouge.htm). With their American names and their wardrobe lifted from a Bogart film, these quintessentially Melvillian characters live outside of society and eschew intimacy of any sort, except camaraderie with fellow outlaws.

 “Le Samouraï” begins with bogus quote from the East: “There’s no greater solitude that the Samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.” Written by Melville himself, but attributed to the Japanese “Book of Bushido”, this is the same gimmick that he used in “Le Cercle Rouge.” The film opens with a saying attributed to the Buddha, but written by Melville himself, that men who are destined to meet will eventually meet in the red circle of fate, no matter what.

 Of course, the affinity between bowdlerized Japanese culture and American b-movies is more than skin-deep. When Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” inspired the western “Magnificent Seven”, one might be led to take into account the influence of classic western films on Kurosawa himself early on in his career. Such is the nature of the film ‘lingua franca’ that fertilized and cross-fertilized the work of so many directors and screenwriters in the post-WWII period.

Speaking of cross-fertilization, even if you have never seen an Asian action flick, you can probably detect its influence here in many different ways. Quentin Tarantino’s films reflect the Hong Kong influence even before “Kill Bill” came out. His first film “Reservoir Dogs” was deeply influenced by “City on Fire”, a 1987 Ringo Lam film whose title also adorned a scholarly study of Hong Kong cinema by a couple of Marxists and old friends, Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes. The book can be read in its entirety here. You can get a flavor of their approach from the first paragraph of chapter three, “Whose Better Tomorrow?”

What better contemporary vision to describe early capitalism than the imprimatur of John Woo’s martial-arts-with-automatic-weapons movies, where competition rages among petty capitalists in the guise of Triads? From “A Better Tomorrow (1986) to “Hard-Boiled” (1992), Woo has tackled ethical questions by pitting his hero against a corrupt world built on the value of a dollar, where ‘necessity knows no law.’ In these movies, gunplay abounds and high body counts result. In the history of capitalism, ‘weapons were the means of expansion for commerce and conquest.1 From multi-round 9 mm pistols to pump-action double-barrel shotguns, Woo’s films unleash the destructive power of an arsenal as internecine feuds erupt between Triads over money and turf, and cops battle the underworld.

Internecine feuds erupting between Triads over money and turf…cops battling the underworld. This pretty much describes “The White Storm”, the 134 minute film whose original title was much better: “The Cartel War”.

The three main characters are Hong Kong cops in the anti-drug department who are trying to track down the elusive Eight-Faced Buddha. With a villain so named, you know that you are entering the rarefied realm of Hong Kong policiers.

One cop is Chow, who is working undercover. The other two are Tin and Tsz-wai, childhood pals of Chow. Recently relations between the three men have become strained as Chow’s wife has threatened a divorce over his growing distance from her, now in her late pregnancy. As frequently occurs in this genre, cops are torn between loyalty to their mission and family ties.

Undercover cops figure in many Hong Kong gangster movies. They are a natural for dramatic tension since they are always in danger of being identified and for their uphill battle to maintain a life outside their job. Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” starred Leonardo DiCaprio as a Boston cop trying to penetrate a gang led by Jack Nicholson, obviously influenced by Whitey Bulger’s South Boston crew. It is nowhere near as good as the Hong Kong movie it was based on, “Infernal Affairs”, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.

Eventually the three cops end up in Thailand trying to capture Eight-Faced Buddha in his lair inside The Golden Triangle. Without divulging too much, Chow reveals the plan of the impending assault to the gang in order to avoid a battle that might cost him his life. His wife has just given birth and is suffering major complications that might cost her life.

Expecting Eight-Faced Buddha’s gang to avoid running into the cops, Chow is shocked to discover that he has set a trap for them. In a wild fifteen-minute scene, gangster helicopters annihilate the cops until only a handful remain, including the three cops. Tin, Chow and Tsz-wai’s superior, is given a choice. Either Chow or Tsz-wai will be spared. Which one will it be? After agonizing for several minutes, Tin decides to sacrifice Tsz-wai who is shot in the chest and falls into a crocodile pit. Don’t forget—we are dealing with Hong Kong action films, not Sundance Festival mumblecore.

After returning to Hong Kong, Tin is blamed for not anticipating the ambush and demoted to running the police department’s IT. (Gosh, what a blow to my self-esteem.) Chow, of course, is stricken with remorse and even fails to save his marriage. And what about Tsz-wai, who was likely eaten by crocodiles? My recommendation is to go see “The White Storm” tonight and to catch as many of the NYAFF movies as you can. They will entertain you beyond your greatest expectations as well as give you an idea of where the future of filmmaking lies.

Look for more reviews of NYAFF films in the coming period.

June 27, 2014

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh behind the curve

Filed under: anti-Communism,literature — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

Said Sayrafiezadeh, right, on his wedding day in 2005 along with his father, Mahmoud (Karen Mainenti, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The latest issue of Book Forum has a section titled “War All the Time” that has reviews of books about war as well as essays by various people, including Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, the 46 year old Iranian-American who enjoyed 5 minutes of fame in 2009 as the author of “When Skateboards Will be Free”, a Trotskyist red diaper baby memoir that got rave reviews in the NY Times and Washington Post. My reaction was less enthusiastic:

The best thing that can be said about this memoir is that it is well written. Clearly, the author knows how to sustain a reader’s interest even if his story either stretches reality or in some cases breaks with it entirely. One doubts that this rather modest work of literature would have commanded the attention of the two most important papers in the United States if it had been about an unhappy childhood spent with Seventh Day Adventist or vegetarian parents imposing their beliefs on the author. There is something about the excesses of Marxist revolutionaries that gets the blood of a New York Times book review editor flowing.

He seems to be in a sophomore slump since his latest book “Brief Encounters with the Enemy”, a collection of stories that according to Amazon.com “chronicles modern, nameless cities crumbling in the shadows of war”, is ranked only 227,506 on Amazon.com, hardly enough to support the consumerist lifestyle the aging author enjoys or—more accurately—aspires to enjoy. In my review of “When Skateboards Will be Free”, I could not help but notice that his appetites were more that of the vulgarian than the artiste. From a 2009 interview in New York Magazine:

Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.

My review looked askance at his claim that the SWP refused to take action against a babysitter member of the sect who molested him at his mother’s apartment in Brooklyn. The incidents would have occurred 40 years or so ago when the party was still relatively normal. But even if they did, I wonder why Sayrafiezadeh never bothered to report them to the police. Supposedly his mother protected the molester because she was anxious not to challenge the party leadership that wanted to protect him but what was Sayrafiezadeh’s excuse? Catholics have no trouble naming names, why doesn’t he? Is it possible that this incident was fictionalized to make the SWP look even worse than it was? We’ll never know, I guess.

“When Skateboards Will be Free” came out in early 2009. Since he probably began writing the book in 2007, or even earlier, there was no reason for him to acknowledge that a financial crisis would rob millions of Americans not only the opportunity to have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV but also a roof over their head.  Talk about being behind the curve.

Like an East German running across the demolished Berlin wall to buy bananas and porn, he assumed that American capitalism would go onward and upward forever. His memoir draws a contrast between his own desires to live a normal consumerist existence and his ridiculous parents’ utopian dreams about socialist revolution. His father, who surely risked his life arguing for socialism in the Islamic Republic, comes off particularly bad–ordering the wrong wine at a restaurant.

Maybe hoping to mine a few shekels from the anti-Communist industry,  Sayrafiezadeh’s article titled “Blood on the Tracts” returns once again to the sad, self-deluding world of his sectarian parents. Our writer begins:

THE BOOKS THAT LINED THE SHELVES in my mother’s home, and that, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, helped to shape my worldview, were almost entirely about war and written almost entirely by communists. There were Marx and Engels, of course, and Trotsky (not Stalin), but there were also quite a few other authors, hovering on the margins of the canon, such as Farrell Dobbs and George Breitman, less talented and lesser known, who would have been read, and published, by the truly initiated, namely members of the Socialist Workers Party.

What “war” could he possibly be writing about, unless he is referring to the class war in which case every single Marxist work would qualify? In terms of Dobbs and Breitman, the “less talented and lesser known”, this put down would have hardly mattered to them since their goal was to influence history rather than be interviewed in New York Magazine, the venue for articles on the very best chocolate and bargain rentals in the Hamptons.

He continues:

And because my mother was herself an avid reader, a former student of English literature who as a young woman had once dreamed of becoming a novelist—before being thwarted by a failed marriage, three children, and clinical depression—there could be found, occasionally, an anomaly wedged in between these other books. Steinbeck’s The Red Pony comes to mind. How it made its way onto our bookshelf, and, more to the point, how it remained, I have no idea. If there were other examples, and I’m sure there must have been, I cannot now specifically recall them. The reading of fiction, discouraged by the Socialist Workers Party, as most pursuits of pleasure were discouraged, was something that my mother undertook with considerable guilt and shame.

What an absurd statement. The reading of fiction was not “discouraged”. Nobody cared particularly what you did in your free time. I read everything by Charles Bukowski I could get my hands on. Most people did not read fiction for the same reason ordinary Americans do not read it. It is a dying art. People watch television or go to the movies. Who can blame them? I have 3 or 4 novels sitting on my bookshelves that I plan to read in the next year or so, mainly because they deal with political issues of some importance to me—like Jonathan Lethem’s novel about a Communist family. But I get more “pleasure” out of reading history or political analysis. If people were still writing like Steinbeck, I’d probably read that.

In terms of “most pursuits of pleasure” being discouraged, what an asinine remark. In the 1970s, SWP members went out to dinner, drank wine, fucked, played basketball or went to the beach just like other normal people did. The only difference between us and the rest of society is that we had less time to do such things because we were always at meetings.

After some more what a bunch of hairshirt assholes from Sayrafiezadeh, he gets into the question of Commies and warfare:

The literature taught well to expect the unhappy sequence of a second Great Depression, followed by a third world war that will dwarf the wars that have preceded it, followed by, if we were truly unlucky, fascism, followed, finally, by the rising up of the working class. These horrors to come dovetailed nicely with what had already arrived, i.e., the various military engagements that the United States was involved in during the years of my childhood, including those in Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Grenada, and the long stalemate with the Soviet Union. It would be hard to disprove at least some of the dire predictions of those books when all around us it seemed we were heading in that direction. In the spirit of other, more playful literary genres, like satire or science fiction, the literature of our household was not only exaggerating but also reflecting something that was already very real. It was also reflecting the state of our own broken family, with missing father and unhappy mother. Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war. The fiction, as nightmarish as it might have been, provided me with solace: If war was what we had to go through in order to finally achieve a splendid life, then the faster we could begin the better. So, for instance, when the United States invaded Grenada and overthrew the Socialist government, the sadness that my mother and I shared was tempered by the understanding that of course things would be playing out this way, since Marx taught well that capitalism can only do what is in its nature to do. The years of my childhood brought more of the same, which is to say, more war, economic crisis, but no workers’ revolt, and eventually my mother, exhausted and disillusioned, resigned from the Socialist Workers Party and purged our household of its communist literature. Our best-laid plans had not come close to being borne out. But it’s not so easy to abandon one’s fantasies, and even as the years passed, and my mother tried, and failed, to become a writer, and I engaged in some decidedly capitalist behavior, like owning my own home, we occasionally found ourselves, at the beginning of yet another war, entertaining thoughts that the gravediggers would soon arrive. Still, we dreamed.

When I read such mind-numbing stupidity, I can understand why Random House published “When Skateboards Will be Free” and torpedoed the comic book I did with Harvey Pekar. The Trotskyists were not obsessed with war. They were for peace, especially in places like Nicaragua, Grenada and Cuba where attempts to create an alternative to capitalism had to be nurtured not bombed into submission.

He states: “Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war.” Yes, I am sure that this is true. Children have confused thoughts. When I was six years old, I used to fantasize about going into outer space in a huge rocket ship that could satisfy all my desires like in “The Forbidden Planet”. At least after I grew up a bit, I realized that childhood fantasies should be left in the past since they are obstacles to coming to terms with life’s challenges. For a shithead like Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, they obviously serve some pecuniary interest since there is a market for red-baiting crap and not memoirs that celebrate a life led as a radical—warts and all.

Secret Reunion

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

Jang Hoon’s “Secret Reunion”

Korean Border Noir


In April 2013 I wrote a survey for CounterPunch  on Korean War movies made by Koreans that included Jang Hoon’s The Front Line, about which I wrote:

Set during the final months of the war, soldiers from either side have not only grown war-weary; they have gotten into the habit of dropping off gifts to each other-like wine and cigarettes-at a designated secret store-box at the bottom of a bunker near the front lines.

This is the second reconciliation film directed by Jang Hoon. His “Secret Reunion”, a 2010 film I have not seen, is about former north and south Korean spies bonding together out of a shared interest.

The very good news is that “Secret Reunion” is now available on Netflix streaming. It is Korean filmmaking at its very best. If you are familiar with Korean film, that’s reason enough to check it out. If Hong Kong cinema has seen its day, you can make the case that Korea not only carries on in the grand tradition but also elevates it to a higher level.

read full article

June 26, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on post-Chavez Venezuela

Filed under: Left Forum,ultraleftism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

This is the fourth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum. I apologize in advance for a brief presence of my bald pate toward the middle of the event for about 10 minutes, which thankfully did not interfere with the audio. A fellow videographer tipped me off about this intrusion and I promise it won’t happen again.

Since the panel included Steve Ellner, I was especially motivated to cover this event. For my money, Steve is the sharpest analyst of Venezuela politics. Period. During the Q&A I commented that despite the fact that I fully supported the process in Venezuela, it seemed appropriate at this point to stop referring to it as “21st century socialism” since there is little likelihood that it will ever lead to the abolition of capitalism. It amounts to a Keynesian type economic program that is committed to the welfare of the masses, something that is inspiring in its own right. Unfortunately, Steve’s reply was not recorded but he made the point that nobody in Venezuela, either on the right or the left, feels that Venezuela is socialist. But what is equally important is the growth of working class institutions of economic and political power that will ultimately clash with capitalist power. This is what explains the sharp clashes in Venezuela now, a focus of the panel presentations that were on a uniformly high level.

This prompts me to say a few words about an article by Chris Gilbert, an American now teaching at a Venezuelan university, that appeared on Counterpunch yesterday. Like many others, particularly among the “Leninists” in the ISO, Gilbert expresses impatience with the Bolivarian process so much so that he invokes the Russian Narodniks as an example of the sort of thing that is necessary in Latin America, including Venezuela.

I am sure that Chris means well but he is a bit confused about the history of our movement, especially when he writes about Marx’s disgust with those who promoted reformism in his name:

Marx himself thought differently. While growing increasingly exasperated by the German Social Democratic party and its ambition to plod (and pact) itself toward a peaceful victory through the tireless accumulation of forces, he found a breath of fresh air in the character of Russian pistol-bearing narodniks whom he called “terrorists.” These folks knew how to live with brio and die with dignity. They had a revolutionary ethic and thought creatively. They read and studied Marx but did not take him to be the last word. Perhaps the twentieth-century figure most like them is the young Fidel Castro.

To start with, Marx was not unhappy with the German party contesting in elections and in other open and legal arenas but with the influence of LaSalle’s ideology on a wing of the party that reflected an opportunist tendency to adapt to the Junkers welfare state taking shape under Bismarck. There is not the slightest hint that Marx proposed “the propaganda of the deed” in Germany. His main goal was to reorient the German party for the need to struggle uncompromisingly against the bourgeois parties until the conquest of power was posed.

Gilbert links to Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx and the Russian Road” but Shanin’s book based on an analysis of Marx’s letters to the Russian populists has zero to do with shooting Czarist officials. Instead it is an embrace of the idea that the precapitalist peasant communes could form the basis of a revolutionary government that could be the first step in a European-wide proletarian revolution. Marx explained that his focus on Britain’s economic history that proceeded from feudalism to capitalism as a basis for the socialist stage was not a universal template. He thought that the capitalist stage could be skipped entirely.

Chris seems to grasp this to a certain degree when he wrote:

 The narodniks of the People’s Will Party used violence because they did not see history as a linear universal progression in which all must follow the same route. They felt that the Russian people were sitting on potential socialism and socialist potentialities. The violence was the means to release these potentialities.

However, the Narodniks did not use violence in order to skip the capitalist stage. Instead, they did so as a way of inspiring the masses to take revolutionary action. Marx’s thinking was entirely different. He believed that socialists should be part of the mass movement, pushing it to revolutionary conclusions. In contrast, the Narodniks operated in small conspiratorial circles and had little interest in organizing strikes or running for the Duma. In fact it was their very elitist method that led to their legal party becoming a reformist obstacle to socialism—the Social Revolutionary Party of Alexander Kerensky. Terrorism and electoral opportunism went hand in hand.

Chris is fed up with the Latin American left that bases itself on Lenin’s critique of ultraleftism, directed against the immature Communist Parties that were trying to emulate the Bolsheviks. While I have no use for those who cite Lenin’s pamphlet to justify support for bourgeois candidates, it remains a good corrective to boneheaded tactics that isolate the left.

But it would be useful to remind ourselves of what Lenin had to say about the Narodniks, who had little to do with Fidel Castro who ran as an Ortodoxo candidate and who was active in the student movement. Even after he took up arms, the July 26th Movement used every opening afforded it under the Batista dictatorship to mobilize the masses, including repeated attempts to build general strikes through the trade union movement that required reaching out to the CP that had supported Batista in the 1930s and 40s.

For Lenin’s views on the Narodniks, I recommend a look at the 1902 article, aptly titled “Revolutionary Adventurism”:

The Social-Democrats will always warn against adventurism and ruthlessly expose illusions which inevitably end in complete disappointment. We must bear in mind that a revolutionary party is worthy of its name only when it guides in deed the movement of a revolutionary class. We must bear in mind that any popular movement assumes an infinite variety of forms, is constantly developing new forms and discarding the old, and effecting modifications or new   combinations of old and new forms. It is our duty to participate actively in this process of working out means and methods of struggle. When the students’ movement became sharper, we began to call on the workers to come to the aid of the students without taking it upon our selves to forecast the forms of the demonstrations, without promising that they would result in an immediate transference of strength, in lighting up the mind, or a special elusiveness. When the demonstrations became consolidated, we began to call for their organisation and for the arming of the masses, and put forward the task of preparing a popular uprising. Without in the least denying violence and terrorism in principle, we demanded work for the preparation of such forms of violence as were calculated to bring about the direct participation of the masses and which guaranteed that participation. We do not close our eyes to the difficulties of this task, but will work at it steadfastly and persistently, undeterred by the objections that this is a matter of the “vague and distant future.”

That has far more in common with Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement than the Narodniks of Lenin’s day or sad attempts to emulate them now.


June 24, 2014

Addendum to “Is Russia Imperialist” — what to make of state ownership of Gazprom

Filed under: corruption,oil,Russia,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

In Roger Annis’s article there is a problematic reference to state ownership that I want to address:

It’s the state, not finance capital, which plays the overriding, directing role in Russia’s economy. The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries; so too in finance and much of manufacturing. The CIA Factbook explains some of the consequences thusly: “The protection of property rights is still weak and the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.

But before attending to that, there are a couple of other matters requiring attention. Annis claimed that since Russia’s GDP per capita is only about half of South Korea’s, it ruled out the possibility that it can be imperialist. I am not sure whether that statistic can in and of itself be used to establish a nation’s place in the capitalist food chain since Ireland ranks higher than Germany.

Consider the example of Czarist Russia, a nation that was both imperialist and underdeveloped according to Leon Trotsky, a thinker who had some influence on Annis in his youth. According to Vitali A. Meliantsev, a Russia economist, the GDP per capita in Russia on the eve of WWI was a third that of the West (page 13 of a paper linked here). Per capita GDP in Russia ran between 18-22 % that of the United States. Despite this, Lenin had no problem referring to Russia as imperialist in 1917, just before the Bolsheviks seized power.

The other thing that strikes the eye to anybody familiar with Ukrainian history is the image at the top of Annis’s article:

It has the caption “People’s Friendship Arch: This steel rainbow was erected in 1983 to commemorate the unification of Ukraine and Russia in 1653 and is meant to symbolize friendship and mutual respect between the two nations.”

I wonder if Annis has any inkling of what that “unification” means to Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine and Czarist Russia signed an agreement in the town of Pereislav not on the basis of “mutual respect” but mostly on the basis of Ukraine’s need to find a military ally against Polish domination. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Ukrainian Cossacks were locked in battles against the Poles, finally making an alliance with the Crimean Tatars in the 1650s that only achieved a stalemate. Led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Cossacks viewed the Czar as a lesser evil.

Paul Robert Magosci sums up the treaty in his “History of Ukraine” as follows:

Aside from the debates among legal scholars and historians, Pereiaslav and its reputed architect, Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi, have taken on a symbolic force in the story of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and have become the focus of either praise or blame. For instance, in the nineteenth century the Ukrainian national bard, Taras Shevchenko, designated Khmel’nyts’kyi the person responsible for his people’s ‘enslavement’ under Russia. The government of Tsar Alexander III (reigned 1881-1894), however, erected in the center of historic Kiev a large equestrian statue of Khmel’nyts’kyi, his outstreched arm pointing northward as an indication of Ukraine’s supposed desire to be linked with Russia. After World War II, the Pereiaslav myth was resurrected, this time by Soviet ideologists, who, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the agreement in 1954, transformed the event into the ultimate symbol of Ukraine’s ‘reunification’ with Russia, from whom it had been forcibly separated by foreign occupation since the fall of Kievan Rus’.

Whatever writers subsequently have speculated about Pereiaslav, one thing is certain: after 1654, the tsardom of Muscovy — which within seventy-five years would be transformed into the Russian Empire — considered Malorossiia (Little Russia, i.e., Ukraine) its legal patrimony. Since the tsar considered Little Russia part of his Kievan Rus’ inheritance, whatever rights or liberties he granted the Cossacks at Pereiaslav were gifts he could take back whenever he wished.

From what I have seen from Roger Annis to this point, I am afraid that his intentions of using this photo was to help propagate the Pereiaslav myth favored by Soviet ideologues.

Let’s now take a look at Annis’s observation that “The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries”, which is obviously a reference to Gazprom. One is not quite sure what state ownership has to do with whether a nation is imperialist or not, especially in light of Lenin’s references to German state-capitalism. In his 1921 article “Tax in Kind”, Lenin makes the case for state-capitalism but under the control of the working class:

To make things even clearer, let us first of all take the most concrete example of state capitalism. Everybody knows what this example is. It is Germany. Here we have “the last word” in modern large-scale capitalist engineering and planned organisationsubordinated to Junker-bourgeois imperialism. Cross out the words in italics, and in place of the militarist, Junker, bourgeois, imperialist state put also a state, but of a different social type, of a different class content—a Soviet state, that is, a proletarian state, and you will have the sum total of the conditions necessary for socialism.

However, it would seem that Lenin was referring more to state control than state ownership. After all, wasn’t it the case that monopoly capitalism is pretty much based on a kind of planning done in conjunction with the state? I reject Tony Cliff’s use of the term to describe the USSR but it seems useful as a way of understanding the “military-industrial complex” referred to by President Eisenhower.

What I think is more important is the usefulness of a phrase like “The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries”. It is safe to say that I own the Macbook that I am typing this article with but is there the same relationship between the state and Gazprom?

According to Wikipedia, the largest shareholder in Gazprom as of the end of 2006 was Gazprombank at 41.235%, a chunk of stock that would ensure corporate control. You, of course, would wonder what was going on when Gazprombank, a subsidiary of Gazprom, is the largest shareholder. That is like saying that BP Bank (if there was such a thing) owned the biggest bloc of shares in BP.

Since the Wikipedia article contains no new information after 2006, you have to do a bit of digging around. A Financial Times article from November 30, 2011 brings things relatively up to date:

When Gazprom transferred control in 2007 of Gazprombank, its banking arm and the country’s third biggest lender, to Gazfond, the gas giant’s $6bn pension fund, the deal was seen as so incremental that the investor community barely noticed.

But Gazfond was closely linked to Bank Rossiya – which owned Lider Asset Management, the company that managed Gazfond’s assets and held most of the latter’s stake in Gazprombank as a nominee shareholder.

Keeping up with me? Gazprom spawned Gazprombank, which became the largest shareholder in Gazprom. But then Gazfond took over Gazprombank that was partnered with Bank Rossiya, which owned Lider Asset. Is your head spinning at this point? Try a little Dramamine.

While it is obviously difficult to penetrate through the interlocking directorships and ownerships of all these corporate entities, one thing is clear. Gazprom exists to make a group of men wealthy beyond comprehension. The NY Times reported on March 1 2012:

Arkady R. Rotenberg, a former judo coach, is now a billionaire industrialist, having made a fortune selling pipe to the state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom.

Yuri V. Kovalchuk owned a minority stake in a small bank in St. Petersburg that in recent years won control of a number of Gazprom subsidiaries. He is now worth $1.5 billion.

Gennady N. Timchenko, once the little-known sales manager of a local oil refinery, is now one of the world’s richest men, co-owner of a commodity trading company that moves about $70 billion of crude oil a year, much of it through major contracts with Rosneft, the Russian national oil company.

What these men share, besides staggering wealth and roots in St. Petersburg, is a connection to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who is poised to win a new six-year term as president in elections on Sunday. The three billionaires are members of a close circle of friends, relatives, associates, colleagues from the security services and longtime advisers who have grown fabulously wealthy during Mr. Putin’s 12 years as Russia’s paramount leader.

Critics say these relationships are evidence of deeply entrenched corruption, which they view as essentially government-sanctioned theft invariably connected to Russia’s abundant natural resources: gas, oil, minerals. This has become a persistent grievance of demonstrators who have staged four large street protests since December and are promising more after the election.

“The basic point is that these guys have benefited and made their fortunes through deals which involved state-controlled companies, which were operating under the direct control of government and the president,” said Vladimir S. Milov, a former deputy energy minister and now political opposition leader who has written several reports alleging corruption. “Certain personal close friends of Putin who were people of relatively moderate means before Putin came to power all of a sudden turned out to be billionaires.”

Those street protesters that Kagarlitsky derided as effete liberal yuppies had it right. What you are seeing is government-sanctioned theft. This was alluded to, after a fashion, in the CIA Handbook that Annis cited: “the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.” For Annis, “heavy state interference” must smack of St. Petersburg 1917 when in fact it has more in common with crony capitalism everywhere in the world, starting with those Middle East and North African countries that so often get included in the “anti-imperialist” bloc.

On December 23, 2011 Reuters published “Special Report: The Gaddafi oil papers” that will give you a strong sense of why the Kremlin and the toppled dictator found such an affinity:


In a separate report published in 2010, Ben Amer’s ministry said almost five million barrels of oil worth around half a billion dollars had disappeared from a particular field in 2008.

That report said its investigation was triggered by information from Beshti. Ghanem, the oil minister and head of the NOC [the state-owed National Oil Company]  at the time, said he did not know about the missing oil; he depended on departmental heads for information and the NOC could not control the activities of its subsidiaries. He believes Beshti was motivated by a personal grudge.

“When you are in charge of 45,000 people you are going to make enemies,” Ghanem said, adding that in Libya’s current climate, witch hunts are inevitable as individuals struggle for power. “People will come up with rubbish stories just to tarnish others for personal revenge.”

The 2010 report also found millions of dollars in payments for oil had been erratic and difficult to trace. This was partly because multiple bank accounts had been opened in the NOC’s name. On top of that, deals had been cut by individuals without authorization.

“The Director of the Crude Oil Department used to sell instant shipments on his own and without referring to … even his own superior officer,” the report says. The crude oil manager at the time, Khaled Nashnoush, is also the signatory of at least one of the allegedly backdated contracts. He could not be reached for comment, and no one at the NOC could say where he is now.

Ghanem said it would be unreasonable to expect him to monitor the activities of all individuals. “Otherwise what is the point of having a head of department?”

June 23, 2014

Indefensible Marxism

Filed under: Fascism,Russia,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

Helga Zepp-LaRouche, Natalya Vitrenko and Lyndon LaRouche at a conference held by the Germany-based Schiller Institute

In Defense of Marxism is the website dedicated to the ideology of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), a group aspiring to breathe life into the moribund Fourth International project. Its top leader is Alan Woods, a 70-year-old Brit who broke with 72-year-old fellow Brit Peter Taaffe in 1992 over the question of whether their sect should remain in the Labour Party (Taaffe favored an exit). Woods is best known for his undying loyalty to the Chavista project in Venezuela while Taaffe is distinguished for having spawned Socialist Alternative, the American group that is in the spotlight now for its member Kshama Sawant having been elected to Seattle’s City Council.

Up until recently, I have had no major problems with Woods’s sect and probably forwarded more of his articles to Marxmail than any other group except for the ISO. I thought the reporting on Venezuela was valuable even if it failed to understand how its Leninist formulas were inappropriate for moving the struggle forward. There were also many interesting items on art and science that reflected a serious engagement with developments ignored by other such groups. For example, an article on Leonardo Da Vinci is very much worth reading as is one on quantum physics and Marxist dialectics.

Like a number of other groups on the left, the IMT has attached itself to the cause of the Donbass separatists. Along with John Rees’s Counterfire and others similarly inclined, Woods has taken the position that Euromaidan is a fascist plot against workers power. The two groups spearheaded a conference in London held on June 2nd in the name of the “Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine”.

To some extent, although this is impossible to prove, it might be related to IMT’s close identification with Venezuelan state policies that tend to follow RT.com and PressTV’s talking points. However, despite Venezuela’s support for Bashar al-Assad, the IMT viewed the revolt as legitimate. It may be the case that the IMT’s hostility to Euromaidan might have more to do with a long-standing inability to grasp the national question.

For example, when Argentina went to war with Britain over the Malvinas, the IMT took a “third camp” position, even continuing to refer to the Falklands. In an article by Ted Grant, the leader of the IMT until his death in 2006, we see that the rights of the British citizen take precedence over that of the Argentine nation.

Although there are only 1,800 Falkland Islanders, Marxists nevertheless have to take into consideration their rights and interests. The Junta’s claim to the Falklands is purely an imperialist claim for loot in the shape of resources which can be developed, although even this is secondary to their aim of heading off revolution by diverting workers along nationalist lines.

Despite the fact Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship, the Argentine left supported the reintegration of the island, including Carlo Petroni, the leader of the IMT’s section who formed a Class Struggle Faction over this very issue. Commenting on an IMT article claiming that Britain “obtained” the Falklands in 1830, Petroni wrote:

The article completely ignores how Britain obtained them. Britain invaded the Malvinas and massacred its Argentinean population. Some local guerrilla fighters, led by Gaucho Rivero, waged a war against the British invaders for years. Upon his capture, Rivero was sent to die in a British prison.

For generations Argentineans have been brought up to struggle to recover the Islands. This is what explains both the courage of the Argentinean conscripts in the face of the cowardly actions of their officers during the war and the mass support among young people for the struggle against British and American imperialism. The war over the Malvinas Islands only coalesced this historical hatred for British imperialism, and completely unmasked the role of American imperialism.

It is not hard to figure out the parallels with the Ukraine. For the IMT, the Euromaidan was equated with NATO, Western banks, the IMF, fascist gangs and just about any other dirt it could dig up. The grass roots movement against Yanukovych was about as important to Alan Woods as the aspirations of the Argentine left. So aggravated was Petroni that he eventually split with the mother ship. Of course, such splits are endemic to the Trotskyist movement and I would not want to make too much of it but on the issues Petroni was obviously right.

Turning to the IMT’s coverage of Ukraine, you are really struck by the reckless disregard for objectivity. In some ways, the articles are beneath propaganda and almost appear written to make the group indistinguishable from the Communist Party in Ukraine, a mainstay of Kremlin ambitions.

The first inkling I got of something off at the IMT website was a March 26 interview with a Ukrainian named Dmitry Kolesnik that should have not passed the smell test. Kolesnik warns about an ominous development that coincides with and is related to Euromaidan: “We can even talk of the establishment of a ‘Brown International’. So, Ukrainian far-rights in power and on the streets is a part of a common European trend and, therefore, should be dealt also on an international basis.”

There is a big problem with this, however. The European far right is pretty much in agreement with the IMT that Euromaidan was a EU/NATO plot and now hails Putin as the last best hope for defending Ukraine against “imperialism”. Golden Dawn, Jobbik, the National Front in France, and the BNP in England are all on the side of the Kremlin against the Jewish/imperialist cabal of bankers and politicians. This is from the BNP website:

While the rest of the world sinks in to an economic crisis of its own making, Russia lives within its means and cuts its suit according to its cloth. Its people are not in perpetual debt, and while their lifestyle might not be as luxurious as the wealthy in the US or Europe, they live happy lives with the prospect of retiring at 55.

And here is the BNP on Ukraine:

In case you don’t know, the National Endowment for Democracy was behind the Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. Known as an asset of the America Intelligence Community, the NED has been behind a plethora of other ‘’people’s revolutions’’ that have overthrown sovereign nations in order to bring them into a planned One World Government.

The NED were also behind the Rose Revolution in 2003 that lead to an armed conflict with Russia in 2008; and – more to the point – they were a major part of the Solidarnost protest movement that sought to overthrow Vladimir Putin after the Duma Elections of 2011.

That could have been lifted from Counterfire or the IMT website. Indeed, Boris Kagarlitsky, who was one of the keynote speakers at the June 2nd conference on the Ukraine referred to above, spoke at another conference about the menace of colored revolutions in 2010 that was organized by the FPO in Austria—that’s the party formerly led by Jörg Haider, who once referred to Auschwitz as a “punishment camp”.

By early May, Alan Woods had become a shameless defender of the separatist movement in Donbass, referring to it as a “popular revolution”.  One month later, the IMT was publishing articles even more extreme.

On June 7th an antiwar conference was held in Minsk that was endorsed by Alan Woods’s supporters in Russia. To give you an idea of the conference’s orientation, the call stated: “the military conflict that followed the victory of the neo-liberals and nationalists in the ‘Euromaidan’ actions in Kiev has claimed hundreds of lives and contributed to an unprecedented growth of chauvinism and xenophobia in Ukrainian and Russian society.”

IMT member Artem Kirpichenok gave a speech at the Minsk conference that demonized the Euromaidan movement:

Armed gangs of far-right thugs, football fans and generally fascist elements from within the public have been regularly attacking communist and trade union activists since the very beginning of the so-called Euromaidan.

Borotba, a group that shares the IMT’s politics and participated in the conference, endorsed the positions adopted there but with reservations—finding it “too moderate”. Borotba explained its objection to a statement that found the Kremlin guilty of intervention:

Here, Kagarlitskiy, is probably closer to the truth, when he said that if Russia was truly a democratic regime, the Russian tanks would already be near Kiev. The Russian regime should be criticized not for intervention but for non-interference, bordering on the actual betrayal, which is accompanied by deafening patriotic and anti-fascist propaganda.

I imagine that Kagarlitsky was trying to say that Putin was ignoring the wishes of the majority but what a commentary on his understanding of democracy! For a number of years now Putin has been cracking down on the opposition, jailing journalists and closing down media outlets that defy the Kremlin’s policy goals. When you have total control over the press, what meaning does the word democratic have? In the 1950s, Communists were fired from their jobs at universities in the USA and in the media while both parties in Washington ratcheted up the Cold War. Don’t you think that when someone like me developed anti-Communist attitudes, it had something to do with my access to information?

That being said, Borotba’s idea that Russia was guilty of “non-interference” can only be understood as the outcome of living in an ideological bubble. People living outside the bubble understand how ludicrous such a claim is but not the poor unfortunates living within it. One Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) heads up the Donbass People’s Militia. In an interview with Pravda, Girkin revealed that his troops had experience fighting for the Russian armed forces in Chechnya, Central Asia, Yugoslavia, Iraq and even Syria. That’s some non-interference.

Searchlight, a British organization launched in 1964 to oppose fascism, published an article on the June 2nd conference titled “Warning to anti-fascists invited to meeting at SOAS”. It departed from the bubble consensus.

It pointed out that Borotba has been working with the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, whose leader Natalya Vitrenko is a long-time associate of Lyndon LaRouche, the rightwing cult leader who has been a solid supporter of the Kremlin and the Donbass separatist movement. Here’s Vitrenko hailing LaRouche on his 90th birthday:

Lyn, you have also rendered unquestionable service through your tremendous political activity as a candidate for the U.S. Presidency and builder of the Schiller Institute, which brought together scientists from all continents and became a platform for an alternative to the reforms of the IMF, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank. On that platform, under your leadership, representatives of 39 countries in December 1995 adopted the Memorandum to Mankind, the importance of which increases with each passing year. I am proud to have had a direct role in drafting it.

On March 3rd, a statement signed by Ukrainian left organizations and individuals denounced Borotba for its collaboration with Vitrenko’s group:

”Borotba” has proved itself an organization with a non-transparent funding mechanism and unscrupulous principles of cooperation. It uses hired workers, who are not even the members of the organization. The local cells of “Borotba” took part in the protest actions together with PSPU (Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine), which is an anti-Semitic, racist, and clerical party, and has no relation to the world socialist movement) and with Kharkiv pro-government, anti-Semitic and homophobic group “Oplot”; and are known for their linkage with an infamous journalist O. Chalenko, who openly stands for Russian chauvinism.

Back in the 1970s, Lyndon LaRouche’s goons were breaking up left meetings armed with clubs and other weapons. Who would ever have dreamed that forty years later it would still be exercising a baleful influence but on a much more difficult to prevent basis. After all, it is much more difficult to ward off ideas offered in the name of Lenin that run counter to everything he stood for than it is to block a blow from a club or a fist. Difficult but necessary.

June 22, 2014

Is Russia imperialist? A reply to Roger Annis and Sam Williams

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Japan,Russia — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Hideki Tojo: he anticipated Vladimir Putin

On June 18th Truthout published an article by Canadian socialist Roger Annis titled The Russia as “Imperialist” Thesis Is Wrong and a Barrier to Solidarity With the Ukrainian and Russian People that is an extended polemic against a view he describes as follows:

More deeply, the empirical, economic and political evidence disproves the claims of Russia as “imperialist.”

The role of finance capital is the benchmark of any measure of the core nature of a capitalist country. In Russia, it is nothing resembling that of the imperialist countries. It’s the state, not finance capital, which plays the overriding, directing role in Russia’s economy. The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries; so too in finance and much of manufacturing. The CIA Factbook explains some of the consequences thusly: “The protection of property rights is still weak and the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.”

Before addressing his arguments, a word or two about Annis’s recent evolution is in order. Shortly after the war in Iraq began, Annis resigned from the Canadian sect that was allied with the American SWP over its abstention from the antiwar movement. I have not followed his trajectory closely but was not prepared for his recent turn toward the Donetsk separatist movement. Along with Boris Kagarlitsky, Alan Woods, and Socialist Alliance member Renfrey Clarke, Annis has essentially defended a movement as anticapitalist no matter the presence of leaders with connections to the Kremlin, or more alarmingly, Russian fascism. Kagarlitsky, who runs a think-tank funded partially by the Kremlin, spoke at a conference on “colored revolutions” in 2010 hosted by the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, the Austrian party formerly led by Jörg Haider, a politician widely regarded as a neo-Nazi. In addition to Kagarlitsky, speakers included the Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin and Israel Shamir, the eccentric journalist who smeared me as a shill for NATO. Clarke has been faithfully translating Kagarlitsky’s pro-separatist articles into English while Annis makes sure to reproduce them on his blog. It would seem to me that these people have lost their way.

Annis is strongly influenced by blogger Sam Williams, whose 30-page article “Is Russia Imperialist” reprises many of the same points made by Annis, especially the business about finance capital being key. I was only aware in the past of Williams’s blog “A Critique of Crisis Theory” having an orientation to the ongoing debates about the falling rate of profit, etc. This was the first article, as far as I know, that took up questions outside of the value theory bailiwick.

It is safe to assume that Williams was a member of the Workers World Party based on his “about me” page:

It was in this period [the 1970s] that I met my friend and collaborator Jon Britton. With his help and encouragement, I began to write articles for the socialist press, though under a different name.

Along with Bill Massey, Britton had joined the WWP after leaving the Socialist Workers Party. Sam Marcy formed the WWP after leaving the SWP over differences on how to regard the Hungarian Revolution. I have very fond memories of Jon Britton and can only say that if he chose to join the WWP, that speaks highly of the organization even if I have deep disagreements with their “global class war” analysis.

James P. Cannon viewed Hungary in 1956 as a workers revolt against Stalinist oppression while Sam Marcy took a position very close to the Kremlin’s, namely that it was a CIA plot. Oddly enough, despite the obvious embrace of Marcy’s analysis on the left, including many writers on CounterPunch where I am a regular contributor, the WWP never seemed able to exploit the broad support for its positions.

When you look at Williams’s article, you will see immediately how it dovetails with the WWP type analysis:

The Orange Revolution was part of a series of pro-Empire “color revolutions”—some successful and some not—that were organized by the Empire and its local representatives with the aim of replacing governments that resisted the Empire in one way or another. Other such “revolutions” include the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon; the unsuccessful Green Revolution in Iran, which also attempted unsuccessfully to overturn a presidential election; and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

This, of course, was the theme of the conference organized by the FPO that Kagarlitsky spoke at. As has become quite evident in recent months, the left and the ultraright have come to an agreement that Putin is a heroic figure standing up to NATO, the IMF, Western banks, the CIA and all the rest. Even the Golden Dawn, that now has the brass to sing the Horst Wessel song at its rallies, regards Putin as a savior.

After a few thousand words reprising the talking points of the pro-Kremlin left about how Euromaidan was a fascist plot organized by the CIA, Williams turns to the question of whether Russia is imperialist. Like Annis, he insists that everything hinges on finance capital:

What is the relative position of Russian banks today? If Russia today is not only capitalist, which it indeed is, but also imperialist, we would expect Russian banks to be increasingly prominent in the world, since the “great” universal banks are the most important organizations of finance capital. The publication Global Finance lists the world’s 50 biggest banks as of 2012 in terms of assets. Despite the size and natural wealth of Russia, not a single Russian bank appears on the list.

Besides finance capital, NATO distinguishes the real imperialists from Russia:

If you have to describe the difference between the imperialism of 1914 and the imperialism of 2014 in one word, it would be NATO. Unlike in 1914, there is one military machine, or “czar,” that dominates the imperialist world. And its roots are not in feudal but purely capitalist relations. This machine includes the armed forces not only of the United States but also of other countries in the NATO “alliance,” including Britain, Germany, France and, though formally part of a separate security treaty, Japan as well.

Part of the problem with this analysis is that it focuses on imperialist rather than imperialism. Lenin’s 1914 pamphlet is a guide to understanding a system, not a handbook on classifying countries. For much of the past ten years or so, I have seen arguments on Marxmail going on at length on how to classify apartheid South Africa (or even post-apartheid) or Israel. Are they imperialist? Sub-imperialist? Lenin never intended to provide some kind of birdwatcher’s guide for such classifications, however.

Lenin’s pamphlet was written for a specific time and place, not a universally applicable textbook. If you take it that way, then you might as well conclude that the war in the Pacific pitted an imperialist USA against a non-imperialist Japan. Do we really want to view Japan as non-imperialist? I don’t think that would have sat well with someone living under occupation in Manchuria or the people of Nanking.

Unfortunately Germaine A. Hoston’s Marxism and Japanese Expansionism: Takahashi Kamekichi and the Theory of “Petty Imperialism” that appeared in the Journal of Japanese Studies (Winter, 1984) is behind a paywall  but I will be happy to send a copy on request. Takahashi Kamekichi’s made the case that Japan was not imperialist according to Lenin’s definition of the term. His evidence was impressive even if it led to the wrong conclusion.

Kamekichi honed in on the phenomenon of yukizumari, a term that meant deadlock and that referred to the failure of the post-Meiji restoration period to propel Japan into the first rank of capitalist nations. The previous partition of the world had deprived Japan of access to raw materials, especially the oil that was crucial to full-scale industrial and military prowess.

It meant that Japan was incapable of producing heavy capital goods like Germany or Britain. In the 1920s 73 percent of Japanese exports were textiles and even when capital goods were being produced, tariffs from more powerful capitalist nations inhibited sales.

Finally, and most importantly given Sam Williams’s emphasis on finance capital, Japan was simply not in the same league with the USA and Europe. Roston writes:

Finally, Japanese imperialism could not be powered by “financial capital” in the Leninist sense. Finance capital had grown prematurely in the late-developing Japan, with the support of the Meiji state, in advance of industrial capital. This process constituted a reversal of the development sequence of Europe and America. Consequently, the finance capital to be found in the zaibatsu was not identical with the finance capital Lenin and Rudolf Hilferding had described as characteristic of the “age of finance capital.”45 These internal and international financial conditions placed severe constraints on Japanese economic expansion. Even where Japan had been able to execute imperialistic ventures, the benefits of these to Japanese capitalistic development and the extent of Japan s imperialistic exploitation were necessarily more limited than those gained through comparable activities by the U.S., Great Britain, and Germany.

Japan pinned its hopes on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a policy that was designed to achieve imperialist goals in the name of anti-imperialism, anticipating to some extent Putin’s Eurasian Economic bloc. Just as Putin positions himself as a friend of nations suffering from IMF, NATO, Western banking interests, etc., so did Japan appeal to Asian nations as its benefactor.

You get the same kind of demagogy surrounding China’s penetration of Africa today. In exchange for some clinics, roads, and rural schools, China gets access to precious resources necessary for capital accumulation.

Prime Minister Tojo gave a speech to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere on November 5th 1943 that will ring a bell with those who have been paying attention to the left that has been suckered into supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic:

During the past centuries, the British Empire, through fraud and aggression, acquired vast territories throughout the world and maintained its domination over other nations and peoples in the various regions by keeping them pitted and engaged in conflict one against another. On the other hand, the United States which, by taking advantage of the disorder and confusion in Europe, had established its supremacy over the American continents spread its tentacles to the Pacific and to East Asia following its war with Spain. Then, with the opportunities afforded by the First World War, the United States began to pursue its ambition for world hegemony. More recently, with the outbreak of the present war, the United States has further intensified its imperialistic activities, making fresh inroads into North Africa, West Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, Australia, the Near East and even into India, apparently in an attempt to usurp the place of the British Empire.

What can we conclude from all this? It is useful to remind ourselves that Lenin wrote a pamphlet titled “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. For some on the left, the emphasis on capitalism has been forgotten. Everything is reduced to a struggle between nations that are imperialist against those who are not. As Marxists, the emphasis should be on the class struggle, however. As class antagonisms deepen inside Ukraine, the small and weak left will become more critical as a voice of reason. I would urge people like Kagarlitsky, Annis, and Clarke to offer its solidarity to that left and cut its ties to the Russian propaganda machine. There’s a good chance that they will ignore me but I would hope that those still trying to make up their mind will give careful attention to what I have written. Time is of the essence.

June 21, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on art and gentrification

Filed under: art,housing,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

This is the third in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

As I will point out, the topic might be of great interest to those who have looked askance at the “art market” but unfortunately the presentations were not that great. I do urge you watch the video, however, since the speakers were genuine authorities in the field of how artists often unwittingly serve as the shock troops of gentrification.

As a New Yorker, this is a topic that interests me a great deal since I have seen any number of neighborhoods in New York undergo gentrification through a process that follows a familiar pattern. Artists looking for a cheap studio will buy or rent commercial lofts, often in violation of building codes, and then turn them into living lofts. Two old friends, now deceased, bought a loft on the Bowery in 1969 for that very purpose. Around the same time, further to the West, Soho was being transformed after the same fashion. I am not sure how many artists are now operating in Soho, an area that is punctuated by Moncler, Gucci, and Armani boutiques.

Soon to follow was Tribeca, an area that followed the same pattern. Besides the boutiques, Soho and Tribeca are fabulous places for hedge fund managers to live. With their tattoos and their French bulldogs, they feel utterly bohemian.

As artists kept getting priced out of Manhattan, they explored other places, eventually “discovering” Wiliamsburg. Before long Williamsburg became “Soho-ized” as artist Su Friedrich pointed out in her documentary “Gut Renovation”, about which I wrote:

Friedrich’s documentary is an angry and deeply personal look at the 20 years she has spent in a Brooklyn neighborhood that I always considered a bohemian stronghold even if there were obviously attempts to gentrify it. As is the customary practice in New York, artists like Friedrich flock to somewhat seedy but charming neighborhoods in search of cheap industrial lofts to turn into studios. The most famous example is Soho, the area “South of Houston Street” that is nothing but a warren of overpriced restaurants and boutiques nowadays. The only artists who remain there are those who are successful enough to mount shows in Madison Avenue galleries, a snooty area that the once downscale Soho now resembles.

Friedrich is a remarkable personality whose flair for vitriol is worth the price of an admission ticket. She is not above accosting well-heeled couples on the street that are toting shopping bags from Bloomingdales and accusing them of destroying her neighborhood. In one priceless moment in this darkly comic saga, she yells at a bunch of real estate agents and developers from the window of her loft. She is both shameless and priceless.

The artist/gentrification nexus appears outside of New York. One of the most egregious examples is Braddock, Pennsylvania, a destitute small city near Pittsburgh that was once home to steel mills. In the largely African-American city, a white Mayor has called for the transformation of Braddock by appealing to artists (implicitly white) to settle there. In my article on Braddock, I call attention to what the Levi blue jean corporation said during the time it was running commercials filmed there:

The muse for Levi’s® new campaign is Braddock, a town embodying the demise of the blue collar base that is taking radical steps to reverse its decay.  Braddock now faces a new frontier of repurpose and new work in what was once a flourishing industrial mecca.  Since 2001, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, has taken his fight for social justice in Braddock to the masses by enlisting the help of modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town.   As it rebuilds, Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.

As opposed to this cynical bullshit in the name of social justice, put forward at a time when Braddock’s only hospital was being shut down, Tony Buba fought for true working-class values as opposed to blue jean iconography.

I would call your attention to an article written by Martha Rosler, one of the two panelists in the video. Titled “The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation”, it makes some essential points about the art/gentrification problem. This “solution” to America’s deepening urban crisis of poverty and social decay is being offered to Detroit today after being dubbed a success in Pittsburgh, another hollowed out metropolis. Rosler writes:

This repopulation and transformation of cities—from spaces bereft of shops and manufacturing, starved of resources, and inhabited by poor and working-class people or squatters living in ill-maintained housing stock, into spaces of middle-class desire, high-end shopping, and entertainment—took at least a generation. It also required the concerted effort of city leaders. New York’s Soho and East Village had proved, by the late 1970s, that the transformation of old warehouses and decaying tenement districts into valuable real estate could be accomplished by allowing artists to live and work in them—if nothing else, city government recognized or identified with such people and understood their needs. Those elected officials who might, in an ear­lier era, have supported organized labor, found that such constituencies were fading away. Artists, in addition, were not going to organize and make life difficult for city governments. In the following decades, the Soho model became paradigmatic for cities around the world. (Another popular tactic was to attract small new industrial shops, mostly high tech ones.) But no matter how much the arts (whether the performing arts or the institutionalized visual arts in museums) have been regarded in some cities as an economic motor, that remedy is not applicable everywhere, and not every city has proved to be a magnet for the arts. A new urban theory was required.


June 20, 2014

Children of Paradise and the Redemptive Power of Art

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Marcel Carné’s Masterpiece

Children of Paradise and the Redemptive Power of Art


Recently Jeffrey St. Clair polled a group of CounterPunch contributors on what they considered to be the greatest 100 films ever made (coming soon). My list omitted “Children of Paradise”, a 1945 French film that was sitting on my shelf for a couple of months incarnated as two Netflix DVD’s (the film runs for 195 minutes). Let me make amends for that now after having seen it for the first time—where have I been all these years? Although I didn’t rate my top 100 in order of greatness, Marcel Carné’s masterpiece, about which Francois Truffaut once said “I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise”, would certainly be among the top ten.

When you enter the world of “Children of Paradise” that is set in the 1830s, you recognize immediately an air of artifice that begins with the opening scene, an image of a curtain that upon lifting reveals hundreds of Parisians milling about a street filled with acrobats, clowns, magicians, jugglers and other artists performing in the open air. The street was known as the Boulevard of Crime, not so much for assaults on the citizens who flocked there but for the theaters that specialized in policiers.

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