Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 30, 2016

East of Salinas

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 9:54 pm

Bullfrog Films is a small-scale film distribution company in rural Pennsylvania that is dedicated to works made by directors and screenwriters with a social conscience. I try to spread the word on their latest offerings since they generally have relevance to the struggle against capitalist exploitation. “East of Salinas” is a case in point. Aired originally on PBS, this fifty-three-minute documentary focuses on a family of undocumented farmworkers from Mexico who are struggling to survive against impossible odds in the town where John Steinbeck was born and where much of his fiction was set. The star of the film is a fourth grader named José who is a poster child for the intrinsic values of such people who are demonized as rapists, gangsters and drug dealers by Donald Trump. José loves school, respects his parents, and puts up with all sorts of indignities with great aplomb given his youth.

The fourth grade teacher is Oscar Ramos, who like José grew up in a family of undocumented farmworkers. From an early age Ramos had a burning ambition to be a schoolteacher. Watching him inspire and challenge a class made up of children like José is one of the film’s greatest pleasures, even if much of it leaves you with a feeling of bitterness over how poor people have to put up with terrible living conditions, job insecurity and the constant threat of la migra. These are people who work 10 to 12 hours a day chopping lettuce so that you can enjoy a nutrient-free salad with dinner, while they are often forced to survive on rice and beans dispensed by church pantries.

Director Laura Pacheco, a trained anthropologist, gave an interview to PBS that while not mentioning Donald Trump offered one of the main reasons this documentary should be shown in classrooms around the country now:

I think East of Salinas should be required viewing for every candidate! Immigration is indeed such a hot topic now – and finding a path towards citizenship for the 11 million undocumented is more important now than ever. But what we really hope is that people who see the film are able to put aside their politics for an hour and settle into Jose’s story. His hope for his future is heartwarming.

There are 2 million kids like Jose in America. They all want to contribute and make their communities a better place. America is full of opportunities and I hope after seeing East of Salinas, the door to providing these opportunities to kids like Jose will open a bit wider. I think because we’ve focused on one story and stayed away from polarizing politics, the film can be used to encourage a different conversation around immigration reform.

For rental information to institutions and individuals, go to http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/eosa.html

April 29, 2016

An open letter to the editors of N+1 on Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:04 pm

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N+1 is a journal that is often cited alongside Jacobin in those effusive articles about the young lions of Marxism. I subscribe to both of them even though I can best be described as a toothless geezer on the edge of the pride.

My preference is for N+1 because its Marxism operates more behind the scenes. Too much of Jacobin reads like a plenary talk at a Historical Materialism conference while N+1 is where I learned about the Russian socialist, poet and rock musician Kirill Medvedev who translated Bukowski’s work into Russian—a man after my own heart.

With my expectations for N+1 set so high, I was rather disappointed with the editorial statement in the most recent issue titled “Bernie’s World: What does a left foreign policy look like?” that repeated many of the talking points of the “anti-imperialist” left about Syria. One can certainly understand why the editors would fall short on Syria. With so many other smart magazines like the London Review of Books and Harpers publishing articles that could have been lifted from RT.com, it is difficult to swim against the stream. After all, Bashar al-Assad’s genial, clean-shaven and well-groomed manner is so much easier to take than the unfathomable, bearded “Alluah Akhbar” yelling men in fatigues who would surely launch an attack on the American homeland if given half a chance. If Vogue Magazine was willing to do a profile on the Syrian president and his lovely wife a while back, who are we to quibble? After all, being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals.

The N+1 editors are generally okay with Sanders except on foreign policy. They fret over his suggestion that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the two countries are “major donors of the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.”

Well, this is all wrong. In fact, Qatar insisted that it would only give money to al-Nusra if it severed its ties to al Qaeda. When negotiations broke down in 2015, the group continued to finance its own militias in Syria the way it always has, through donations by sympathizers in various Sunni countries, including Qatar. Does this mean that Qatar backs al-Nusra? Only in the sense that the USA backed the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s when most of its funding “came from the USA”, especially from Boston’s South End.

Furthermore, the USA does not support al-Nusra. It has bombed the group repeatedly, always making the excuse that it was after the Khorasan—a nonexistent group that supposedly had plans to launch 9/11 type attacks in the USA.

As for Saudi Arabia, it is not supporting ISIS (once again making a distinction between the state and individuals acting on their own initiative) no matter what Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk write. ISIS has declared the royal family to be infidels and has already launched armed attacks from within Iraq. You can read about the growing threat to the Saudi establishment by recruits to the Islamic State who are killing wantonly as the March 31, 2016 NY Times reported:

The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.

They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.

And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.

I recommend two new books on Syria that will clarify the role of such jihadist groups in Syria. One is titled “Burning Country” co-authored by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. The other is “Khiyana”, a collection of articles including one by me but the more relevant one is titled “The Rise of Daesh”, written by Sam Charles Hamad. His research is thoroughgoing and essential for getting past the stereotypes of Saudi Arabia being Dr. Frankenstein to the monster of ISIS:

One of the forces that received generous Saudi funding was the secular nationalist FSA-affiliate Liwa Shuhada Suriya (Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade) led by Jamal Maarouf. Far from Saudi’s funding Daesh when the FSA and Qatar and the Turkish funded Islamic Front launched an offensive against Daesh it was led by a FSA coalition called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front led by Jamal Maarouf. The weapons they used against Daesh on the frontlines were paid for by Saudi Arabia.

The only hard line Salafist group that Saudi has funded is Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) which was a merger of several different Salafi forces initiated by Saudi’s to attempt to deflect both Syrian and foreign Salafi recruits away from the growing threat of Jabhat an-Nusra (which at that time was still what Daesh called itself in Syria before its split). The reason for this was that Jabhat al-Nusra, as with all al-Qaeda ‘franchises’, espouses a virulent and violent anti-Saudi theology and politics.

If given a choice between Sanders and Clinton, the N+1 editors prefer the Bern since nobody could have been worse than Clinton who “sank an early peace deal in Syria to deepen the US proxy war”. This is a reference to the breakdown in talks between her and the Russians in 2012, with Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, who was involved with the talks, blaming Clinton. His revelations made quite a stir last year around this time in the left and liberal press. For example, the Guardian reported: “Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.”

But no peace deal was in the offing, especially one in which Assad would step down in a Yemen-type solution that would leave Assadism without Assad intact. How do I know? Because the Russians said so:

The Kremlin denied a claim by a senior negotiator [Martti Ahtisaari] Wednesday that Russia had offered in 2012 to make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down in an “elegant way”, saying it never called for regime change.

“I can only once more repeat that Russia is not involved in changing regimes. Suggesting that someone step aside – elegantly or not – is something Russia has never done,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, quoted by TASS state news agency.

The only other thought I would offer is on the editors’ survey of the Vietnam antiwar movement, which I had significant involvement with.

They criticize the movement for failing to “anchor itself within the party structure”, a clear reference to becoming a wing of the Democratic Party:

But as Daniel Schlozman details in When Movements Anchor Parties, the antiwar movement failed both to anchor itself within the party structure and to create a lasting alternative coalition. No national elected official came out of the movement. On its own, the movement fragmented and radicalized, beset by Nixon’s repression on the one hand and by faltering strategies on the other. The distinction from the labor movement in the 1930s is enormous. At that time, organized labor, gaining in strength and numbers, weighed working outside the Democratic Party against negotiating with the party for legislative gains and legitimacy. Labor chose the latter strategy. The result was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the election of officials who declined to send in troops when workers occupied factories. (This is not to diminish the costs, over time, of being so close to the Democratic Party and blandishments of power, but the benefits were significant.) Nothing comparable occurred with the antiwar movement. By the time its electoral reforms delivered a candidate — George McGovern of McGovern-Fraser — it was too spent a force to work with the candidate. In 1972, McGovern suffered what was then the worst electoral defeat of the postwar era, until Mondale outdid him in 1984.

As it happens, the question of the Democrats and labor organizing in the 1930s is very fresh on my mind after having written about Sanders’s “political revolution” in early March. It turns out that the Mayor of Chicago in 1937 was a Democratic “friend of labor” who was backed by the Communist Party and as such would ostensibly be loath to attack workers. However, when steel workers went on strike, Edward Kelly ordered an attack by the cops that left 10 people dead on Memorial Day. Another 28 were wounded, 9 of them permanently disabled. And Roosevelt, the great friend of labor, was content to utter these words about the police massacre: “A plague on both your houses”.

The Vietnam antiwar movement kept the Democratic Party at arm’s length because it was led by the Trotskyists of the SWP who had a much more class-based understanding of the Democrats than the CPUSA. To make a long story short, the CP, which worked with the SWP and the pacifists in a kind of tripartite coalition that the N+1 article alludes to, was always trying to get the coalition to follow the lead of Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy or George McGovern. If it had been successful, there never would have been a Moratorium or any other mass demonstration. You can take my word on that.

I must say that I got a chuckle out of this wind-up by the editors on the Vietnam antiwar movement:

The narrow demand to end the war in Vietnam meant that once the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the movement had little left to pursue beyond the sunlit quadrangles and back-patting panel discussions of academic life.

Back-patting panel discussions of academic life? Hmmm. Not exactly. Most of the people who provided both the brains and the muscle of the movement were social workers, librarians, cabdrivers, waiters, computer programmers and the like. There were a few figureheads at the top like Noam Chomsky and Douglas Dowd who taught at elite schools but you’d hardly find them at “back-patting panel discussions of academic life”.

Finally, there is some hope in the final paragraphs of the N+1 editorial embodied in its critique of Noam Chomsky who they regard as an exemplary antiwarrior but fault on the basis for a certain kind of kneejerk reaction to conflicts overseas:

Chomsky’s American antistatism — bracing and helpful as it has been — sometimes makes other kinds of internationalism difficult. If the temptation facing one set of political figures is to wake up every morning wondering whom to bomb next, the temptation facing the left is to keep one’s hands clean; to withdraw from the world, taking up an older but no less simplistic approach to foreign policy, isolationism à la George Washington and Ron Paul.

As it happens, the Ron Paul outlook is hegemonic on the left. It boils down to putting a minus where your ruling class puts a plus as Leon Trotsky noted in a 1938 article titled “Learn to Think”. It is the orientation of the libertarian Antiwar.com as well as 99 percent of the material that appears on CounterPunch, Salon, ZNet and other radical or liberal websites.

The only problem with this approach is that it fails to engage with the class struggle inside a country where rebels find themselves on the other side of the barricades from someone like Bashar al-Assad getting pilloried by Nicholas Kristof, et al. We should not develop an orientation to the conflict in Syria based on an NY Times op-ed but on the class forces in motion. That requires reading what the Syrian left has to say, starting with someone like Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a communist who spent 16 years in a Syrian prison:

Perhaps that explains the convergence of right-wing Westerners who were never critical of the colonialist project and continue to believe in the civilizing mission with communists of the transferring scientific consciousness type who are still nostalgic for the Soviet Union, no less a prisonhouse of nations than Tsarist Russia was in the words of Karl Marx.

It is not in concepts like tyranny, despotism or even totalitarianism that we find an explanatory model for the Assad regime. But rather in the concept of colonialism, and its most brutal models in particular. Models based on genocide as it manifested itself in the new world hundreds of years ago and in Russia between the two world wars.

April 28, 2016

How can Trump be a fascist when he is for making deals with Russia?

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 3:53 pm

Patrick L. Smith of Salon.com wrote what probably most people in the Putinite left were thinking today in an article titled “Trump opposed Iraq. Hillary voted for war: Let’s take his foreign policy vision seriously”.

After dispensing with the parts of Trump’s foreign policy speech that he had trouble with (mostly about making America “great” again), Smith got down to what he liked—the turn away from interventionism and toward accommodation with Russia:

Here he [Trump] is on Russia, an especially stark example given the prevailing state of relations. (He lumps the Russians in with the Chinese. See what I mean about blur?)

“We are not bound to be adversaries,” says Trump. “We should seek common ground based on shared interests. This horrible cycle of hostility has to end.”

Were I a younger man I would say something like, “Dude. Like totally cool.” Instead—another sentence I will take a sec to brace for—I am thoroughly in agreement with Trump on this point and think he should hit Hillary “I Urged Him to Bomb” Clinton over the head with it every chance he may get. As noted in a previous column, Trump prefers making deals to force. Implicit in the preference is a recognition of alternative perspectives and interests, which I count essential equipment in the 21st century.

The speech was delivered as part of an effort to appear “presidential” in keeping with the advice of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign adviser.

It was sponsored by the Center for the National Interest that was founded by Richard Nixon in 1994 and whose president is Dmitri Simes, a Kremlinologist of long standing. The Center publishes National Interest, a magazine stamped with the Center’s realist foreign policy and that published Francis Fukuyama’s infamous “end of history” article. You can find such reasonable people as John Mearsheimer and Andrew Bacevich on its editorial board. Who can ask for more than that? Mearsheimer and Bacevich are widely regarded as foreign policy “doves” even though it is based much more on a realpolitik outlook than anti-imperialism. For his part Mearsheimer was a supporter of the first Gulf War while Bacevich urged a vote for Obama in 2008 as the most sensible choice for conservatives like him.

The tilt toward Trump does not come out of the blue. For example, there was an article in the May 19, 2015 Nation Magazine by James Carden complaining about “McCarthyism” in the American media designed to “ban Russia policy critics” like Stephen F. Cohen who he defended against the charge of being a “Putin apologist”. Gosh, you could have fooled me.

Carden is identified as “the executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord” beneath the article. The board includes both Cohen and his father-in-law William vanden Heuvel. It also includes Chuck Hagel, the Republican Senator whose views on foreign policy are frequently aired in Simes’s National Interest. Carden is also an editor at the American Conservative and a frequent contributor to the National Interest. So essentially you have a bloc of liberals and conservatives sharing a “realist” belief that the USA and Russia need to ease tensions and focus on shared goals such as blowing the jihadists to kingdom come. Since Trump is on record as not ruling out the use of nuclear weapons against ISIS, that’s quite a bridge to cross.

You can get a feel for the internecine connections between the gurus of realpolitik and Russian power by looking at Richard Burt, who reportedly helped to draft Trump’s speech. Burt has been a Washington insider for many years. He led the SALT 1 talks with Russia when he served in the Bush ’41 White House. He is on the advisory board of the National Interest and also a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank that includes Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger and Leon Panetta on its board of trustees.

But don’t let any of that worry you. In a recent interview Burt told the National Interest that he has gone through a conversion that put him firmly in Trump’s camp. He stated that the Republican Party has become averse to the sort of policies that Hillary Clinton espouses and is now evolving away from neoconservatism. To show you how committed he is to a realist foreign policy that won’t make a fuss over Ukraine or Syria, he has accepted a seat on Alfa Bank’s Senior Advisory Board in Moscow. That’s called doing well by doing good, I suppose.

Unlike Dmitri Simes or Stephen F. Cohen, Paul Manafort is not a high-profile commentator on world politics. A search on Nexis for “by Paul Manafort” produces zero results. He is mostly content to operate behind the scenes advising people like Trump. In the past he has also been a campaign adviser to Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain.

He also got involved with an overseas presidential campaign, namely for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin oligarch who was overthrown by the Euromaidan movement in 2014. Now you’d think that Manafort might have gotten involved with advising Yanukovych through some connections he had with Stephen F. Cohen or some highly placed pro-Kremlin power broker. But in fact Manafort got the job through connections he had established with the scary warmonger John McCain.

You can read about it in an article titled “McCain’s Kremlin Ties”  by Mark Ames and Ari Berman that appeared in the Oct. 1, 2008 Nation Magazine, the kind of article that tends to appear with less frequency nowadays after it joined the Putinite propaganda machine.

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

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

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

It would be wrong to interpret Manafort’s efforts on behalf of Yanukovych as something in line with McCain’s foreign policy agenda. He did it mostly for the money obviously. That being said, Trump clearly does have an affinity with Putin and vice versa. They are both deeply hostile to the Arab struggle to rid the Middle East of tyrants. Trump had this to say about Obama’s role in Egypt: “He supported the ouster of a friendly regime in Egypt that had a longstanding peace treaty with Israel, and then helped bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in its place.”

One imagines that it was sufficient to utter the words “Muslim Brotherhood” for Trump to get his point across. During a January 5, 2016 campaign rally, when Trump was castigating Obama for caving in to Iran over the nuclear treaty, someone in the audience yelled out, “He’s a Muslim” to which Trump replied “Okay, I didn’t say it.” In a 2011 Fox News (where else?) interview, Trump raised the possibility that Obama was actually a Muslim: “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that.”

Meanwhile, Putin bombs Sunni Muslims all across Syria getting a free pass from people like Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh and Patrick L. Smith because the targets are jihadists to one degree or another, even the three-year olds who might grow up to be jihadists. The latest outrage now has the Baathist amen corner claiming that the White Helmets got what they deserved because they are allied with al-Qaeda. When Syrian and Russian jets bomb volunteers as they are rescuing civilians from buildings caved in by the same bombers, you really have to wonder how some on the “left” can take the side of the bombers. This is a level of Islamophobia that would probably have mortified Christopher Hitchens.

Meanwhile, General al-Sisi, who is now regarded as even more dictatorial than Mubarak, has developed the same kind of bromance with Putin as al-Jazeera reported on August 27, 2015:

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have pledged to further boost relations between the two countries at talks in Moscow.

Wednesday’s talks’ agenda included economic cooperation, conflicts and the political situation in the Middle East. It was Sisi’s third visit to Moscow.

At a joint news conference following the negotiations, Putin spoke of possible cooperation between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union.

“Among concrete steps to give additional stimulus to the economy is a possible creation of a free trade zone between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union,” he said.

And just to show that the Eurasian Economic Union is an irresistible alternative to the perfidious European Union, even Israel gets in the act:

The Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is planning to hold talks with Israel on establishing a free trade zone. The agreement is likely to strengthen Tel Aviv’s economic ties with the union and improve Russia’s investment climate.

“There has been a decision to kick-off talks on the free trade zone with Israel,” said the director of the EEU’s Integration Development Department Victor Spassky.

When al-Sisi, Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Patrick L. Smith, Mike Whitney, Paul Banafort, Pepe Escobar, Paul Craig Roberts, Richard Burt and Stephen F. Cohen can all line up in support of Putin, you’d have to be crazy not to join the fan club.

Call me crazy.


April 26, 2016

Stalin, Stalinism and crypto-Stalinism

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:35 pm

I have just finished plowing through the articles about Stalin in an English-language online journal out of Kosovo titled “Crisis and Critique” that is put out by the Dialectical Materialism Collective. Despite the Stalinist leanings of co-editor Agon Hamza, the articles are “fair and balanced” as they say on FOX news. I want to offer comments on some of the more interesting on both sides of the Stalin debate and then offer my own thoughts on the question posed by the journal’s editors: “Stalin: What does the name stand for?”

Let me start off with the anti-Stalin pieces. First among them is Lars Lih’s “Who is Stalin, What is he?” As most of my regular leaders know, Lih is a Lenin scholar who has made the case that Lenin only sought to build a party in Russia modeled on Kautsky’s party in Germany, something I strongly agree with. Since Lih is an adjunct music professor in Canada, it is not surprising that most of his article is devoted to commentary on compositions by Prokofiev and Shostakovich that are part of the Stalinist canon. Shostakovich’s “Song of the Forest” is actually quite beautiful and can be heard online:

In keeping with his musical background and occasional performance in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, Lih cannot resist comparing Stalin’s view of himself in “The Short Course”, a numbingly stupid self-justification of his policies written in 1938, to the Lord High Chancellor’s aria in “Iolanthe”:

The law is the true embodiment
Of everything that’s excellent
It has no kind of fault or flaw
And I, my Lords, embody the law.

Paul Le Blanc’s “Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism” is one of the best things I have read by him in quite a long while. It combines personal and political reflections, informed by his experience as a Red diaper baby who evolved first into an SDS’er and then into a Trotskyist.

He believes that it is entirely possible that his first name was a tribute to Paul Robeson and Joseph, his middle name, to Stalin. Like a marital hygiene book kept out of the sight of children, his parents kept a collection of Lenin’s writings on the upper shelf that he surreptitiously studied in the 1960s.

But the most interesting part of the article deals with his encounters with George Brodsky, who was his mother’s uncle and a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade. It would be worthwhile in my view for Le Blanc to expand on this conflicted relationship at some point since it is quite perceptive politically and psychologically:

I was stunned that George saw this massively-documented critique of Stalinism [the Khrushchev revelations] as an assault on all that he was. I insisted this was not true, but in the crescendo of argument I asked: “If we were in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s time, and I was making these criticisms of him, would you turn me in?” With fury he asked: “What do you expect me to say to that?” I honestly responded: “I expected you to say no.” He just looked at me, and I realized that for him to say such a thing might have been a lie. This flowed from a political culture that he had embraced and that had shaped him as a political person.

The irony is that George himself, had he for some reason sought refuge in the Soviet Union upon leaving Spain in 1937, would most likely have perished. In the book American Commissar, a veteran of the Lincoln Battalion, ex-Communist Sandor Voros (at the time official historian of the Fifteenth Brigade), had written this description:

. . . Luck finally led me to George Brodsky who had been denounced to me by most of those early arrivals as the worst example of the behavior of Party leaders and commissars in Spain.

When I located him, George Brodsky was being kept in seclusion awaiting repatriation. I found him a broken old man although barely in his thirties. He wouldn’t talk to me at first, he had been pledged to secrecy. When I finally induced him to confide in me, he not only talked, he spilled over.

His account was not quite coherent – he was still unnerved by his experiences, his eyes would dissolve in tears from time to time as he pleaded for my understanding. . . .

Evgeny V. Pavlov’s “Comrade Hegel: Absolute Spirit Goes East” is a brilliant historical survey of debates within Soviet Marxism that eventually trailed off into Stalin’s elevation of “dialectical materialism” into a kind of state religion. It begins with an examination of Plekhanov’s use of the term that was also deployed heavily in Lenin’s polemic against Bogdanov. Both Plekhanov and Lenin considered Hegel to be essential for understanding Marxism.

After the triumph of the Russian Revolution, Marxist academics engaged in a fierce debate over whether dialectical materialism could be applied to the sciences as well as history and society. The leaders of each tendency were students of Plekhanov but differed over the degree to which it could be universalized. Lubov Akselrod represented the “mechanists”, who were for the independence of science while Abram Deborin spoke for the “dialecticians” who considered Engels’s “Dialectics of Nature” as a model for their approach. Supported initially by Stalin, Deborin obviously won the debate in a somewhat bureaucratic fashion. This did not prevent him from eventually being purged by Stalin for his “Menshevizing idealism”. In his boneheaded “Short Course” alluded to above, Stalin came up with his own version of dialectical materialism that lacked the subtlety of either Plekhanov or Lenin. Pavlov writes:

With materialist dialectics as its method and materialism as its ontology, Stalin’s theoretical insertion summarised previous discussions and laid the cornerstone of the future edifice of Soviet Marxism as diamat. Diamat is a metaphysical system, an ontological construct that, as “mechanists” justly accused “dialecticians” of doing, creates a philosophy of everything. As Z. A. Jordon aptly put it in his presentation of Stalin’s philosophical contribution to Marxism:

While Marx tried to show that the laws of social development makes the fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat equally inevitable, Stalin set out to prove that these events are indeed inevitable because the laws of social development are derivable from and determined by the evolutionary laws of the universe. Stalin turned into a philosopher to give the Party a cosmic pat on the back.

Another must-read is Bill Bowring’s “Cromwell, Robespierre, Stalin (and Lenin?): Must Revolution Always Mean Catastrophe?”, a title that in and of itself would invite a closer look. Bowring is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Historical Materialism and a human rights lawyer who has defended people in Russia and Turkey.

Bowring’s article was prompted by a footnote in Hannah Arendt’s “On Totalitarianism”:

Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography. (New York and London, 1949), is indispensable for its rich documentary and great insight into the internal struggles of the Bolshevik party; it suffers from an interpretation which likens Stalin to—Cromwell, Napoleon, and Robespierre.

This leads Bowring to take a close look at Thomas Carlyle, a reactionary defender of Cromwell, and François Furet, an ex-Marxist who was a strong influence on the Political Marxists for his revisionist take on the French Revolution. Furet regarded Robespierre as a totalitarian, just like Lenin.

Bowring came to this conclusion after a close examination of the texts:

What is perfectly clear is that neither Cromwell, nor Robespierre, nor Lenin, could become an icon or avatar for the reactionary and historically outmoded regimes they helped to overthrow. Stalin had none of the personal characteristics of the three leaders examined in this article. He was a revolutionary, and a leader of the Bolshevik Party. But his trajectory was to destroy utterly that which he had helped to create. That is why the present Russian regime seeks to elevate him to the status of the murderous Tsars of Russian history.

Turning to the pro-Stalin contingent, I should begin by mentioning that I have written at considerable length about the worst of them, an Australian theologian named Roland Boer who tried to explain Stalin’s rule in terms of debates within 5th century Christianity.

Domenico Lusardo and the journal’s co-editor Agon Hamza wrote articles that were less objectionable than Boer’s but shared the same flaw, namely to make an amalgam between anti-Communism and legitimate critiques of Stalin. For such people, it is out of the question to write worshipful bile in the Boer style so it turns into a flanking technique that leads inevitably to the conclusion that Stalin was an authentic voice of Russian socialism.

I only knew Losurdo by name before reading his article titled “Stalin and Hitler: Twin Brothers or Mortal Enemies?” but his arguments had a familiar ring. He has apparently been writing many books and articles over the years taking exception to Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism that puts Hitler and Stalin on the same plane. For Marxists, the problem with Arendt is that she has no understanding of the class dynamics that led to a bureaucratic tyranny in Russia. Her emphasis is on ideology rather than the material forces such as civil war and economic isolation that fostered the growth of a bureaucratic caste.

In order to prove that Stalin was different than Hitler, he alludes to the Nazi racist extermination of “untermenschen” that supposedly was diametrically opposed to Stalin’s policy:

On the other side, Stalin welcomes and supports the cultural rebirth of the national minorities of Eastern Europe that have been suppressed for so long. Telling are the observations that he made on the X. party congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1921: “About fifty years ago all Hungarian towns bore a German character; now they have become Magyarised”; also the “Byelorussians” experience an “awakening.” This is a phenomenon that is supposed to capture the whole of Europe: From the “German city” that it was Riga will not become a “Lettish city”; the cities of the Ukraine will “inevitably be Ukrainianised” and will make the previously dominating Russian element secondary. And constantly Stalin polemicizes against the “assimilators,” be it the “Turkish assimilators,” the “Prussian-German Germanisators” or the “Tsarist-Russian Russificators.

Like Boer, Lusardo is more interested in what Stalin said than what he did. Instead of going by his words, he should examine his deeds—ones that Lenin found so smacking of Great Russian Chauvinism that he resolved to fight him from his sickbed within months of his death.

Agon Hamza cowrote “On the Organisation of Defeats” with Gabriel Tupinambá, a Brazilian academic sharing Hamza’s devotion to Althusser and Zizek who are quoted liberally throughout a rather silly article. The final page of the article ends up making a point that I have heard many times over the years, especially from academics unfamiliar with Soviet history:

…Trotsky wants to present Stalin as a deviation from the initial aims of Bolshevism and from the aims and goals of the October Revolution. But, is that the case? Let us take the case of the brutal collectivization carried out by Stalin from 1928. For Žižek, this was the true act – in the sense that it meant a wager, with no certainty of success:

If we really want to name an act which was truly daring, for which one truly had to “have the balls” to try the impossible, but which was simultaneously a horrible act, an act causing suffering beyond comprehension, it was Stalin’s forced collectivization in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s.

Having the balls, indeed. Further evidence that Zizek is the stupidest man alive speaking in the name of Marxism.

* * * *

I am not sure if Stalinism exists today but a good case can be made that crypto-Stalinism does. I see displays of it every day on the Internet. It has the same logic as the original but is applied to a Kremlin whose symbol is a Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star rather than a hammer-and-sickle.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, the CP’s were certainly a lot different than they were in the 1930s. The Khrushchev revelations opened the doors to a more critical way of thinking inside its ranks while the social democratic dynamic that had set in during the Popular Front turn had only become accelerated. If anti-Communists had a relatively easy job raising the bugaboo of a Stalin plotting to take over the world, the image of the doddering Brezhnev hardly inspired fear.

The last blast of hardcore Stalinism took place in the aftermath of the breakup of SDS. A number of sects like Mike Klonsky’s October League and Bob Avakian’s RCP emulated the “Third Period” CP rather than Gus Hall’s party, blending the ultraleftism of the 1920s and early 30s with Maoism, which in a very real sense was the same thing as the “Third Period” up until Nixon visited China.

By the late 80s most of these self-styled bids to breathe new life into Stalinism had collapsed, going into terminal decline just like the Trotskyist SWP. The cause of the collapse was the same, whatever position they took on Stalin. They failed to relate to the American working class on its own terms. The belief that a socialist revolution led by a Leninist party was on the agenda defied not only the objective conditions but Leninist tactics that would have dictated a course of action flowing from the existing class struggle rather than fantasies.

Today old school Stalinism is pretty much kaput. Back in 1996 the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail was invaded by supporters of the Shining Path in Peru who used language that was ripped from the pages of the 1930s Comintern. When the Shining Path collapsed, they faded away.

All this was part of the general retreat of the left that was caused in part by a decline in the mass movement, the dissolution of the USSR as well as our own mistakes. As the class struggle ebbed in places like the USA and Britain, the left began to prioritize anti-imperialist struggles that did not really pose the need for implantation in factories and mines. If socialist revolution seemed off the agenda, then at least we could work to oppose NATO or American intervention in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Nicaragua or Angola.

Inexorably, the decision to oppose imperialist intervention required unremitting opposition to anybody who lined up with Washington or London. I only began to think past these antinomies when I reevaluated the Miskito rebellion against the FSLN. When I was a Nicaragua solidarity activist, I made no distinction between them and the Honduras based contras who were the dregs of Somoza’s army. Using the resources of Columbia University’s library, I discovered that the Atlantic coast conflict in Nicaragua consisted of shades of gray rather than black and white.

As should be obvious from what I wrote about the Miskitos in 2001, my efforts were directed at understanding class relations in Nicaragua rather than through the prism of the Cold War where one tended to take sides based on who the USA supported or opposed:

The best presentation of the Miskito case comes from Charles R. Hale, an American anthropologist who was a Sandinista supporter. The more time he spent with Miskito people, the more he came to realize that the government in Managua had misunderstood their legitimate demands. His book “Resistance and Contradiction: Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987” is essential reading.

Hale explains that Miskito unrest had preceded the Sandinista victory. The same economic forces that precipitated the revolution against Somoza were shaking up the Atlantic Coast. Large-scale commercial exploitation of the land for cattle-ranching and cotton production caused displaced peasants to arrive in the cities with dim economic prospects. When the earthquake hit Managua, these prospects completely disappeared and armed struggle seemed like the only reasonable path.

These peasants also moved eastward, putting pressure on communally owned Miskito land. The UN and the Alliance for Progress sponsored some large-scale projects in partnership with Somoza that the Miskitos resented, including the construction of a deep-water port. The construction interfered with traditional fishing activities. The Miskitos faced challenges on all front.

But mostly the Miskitos felt left out of the economic development that was taking place all around them. The Somoza family had pumped millions of dollars into nearly 200 industrial fishing boats on the Atlantic Coast. Commercial fishing accounted for 4 percent of foreign currency earnings in 1977, but nothing substantial flowed into Miskito improvement. The “trickle down” theory was as false in Nicaragua as it was in Reagan’s America. Capital to finance the expansion came from Cuban exiles in Miami and North American banks. All the stepped up economic activity was of no benefit to the Miskitos, who regarded the Spanish-speaking businessmen as little more than invaders. After the commercial fishers had taken the last lobster and shrimp out of the water, they would have gone on their merry way.

That was written 15 years ago. Nothing has dissuaded me since then that this is the best approach to take. Stalinism was a reductionist politics that arrogated to itself the right to kill Trotsky for having the impudence to criticize Stalin in the bourgeois press. Its bastard offspring crypto-Stalinism would never resort to such measures. Instead it works tirelessly to justify the Kremlin and its allies being able to kill with impunity any group of people unfortunate enough to be praised by Nicholas Kristof or Samantha Power.

In the final analysis, abandoning the rigid dichotomies of crypto-Stalinism is a major task facing the left. Like any other obsession, it is difficult to overcome but overcoming it is essential nonetheless. Just as smoking is a threat to our physical health, crypto-Stalinism is a threat to the health of the left. Let’s resolve to quit it starting today.

April 25, 2016

The Star-Nosed Mole

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

Star-Nosed Mole

by Anne Sexton

Mole, angel-dog of the pit,
digging six miles a night,
what’s up with you in your sooty suit,
where’s your kitchen at?
I find you at the edge of our pond,
drowned, numb drainer of weeds,
insects floating in your belly,
grubs like little fetuses bobbing
and your dear face with its fifth hand,
doesn’t it know it’s the end of the war?
It’s all over, no need to go deep into ponds,
no fires, no cripples left.
Mole dog,
I wish your mother would wake you up
and you wouldn’t lie there like the Pieta
wearing your cross on your nose.

No, Seymour Hersh, the shish kebab does not favor Sharia law

Filed under: Jihadists,journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

As it happens, on the same day I posted my article “Taking the Baathist Garbage Out”, Seymour Hersh gave an interview on RT.com (naturally) with the customary “regime change” warnings.

Pay careful attention to 4:15 in the Youtube clip below where Hersh refers darkly to American support for “moderate” rebel groups aligned with the dreaded Sharm al-Sharma that actually was in favor of Sharia law and expelling all Christians and Alawites from Syria.

As it happens, there is no such group and the closest anything comes to this garbled formulation is something called shawarma, a kind of shish kebab popular in the Middle East.

Shawarma on pita bread: no threat to Alawites

Instead, he was speaking about Ahrar ash-Sham, a group that was brought up in the course of a podcast interview of Robert Ford by Stephen Sackur of the BBC. Ford had been ambassador to Syria but was unhappy with the White House’s failure to arm the rebels adequately. This failure led to the rapid growth of ISIS that had an abundant supply of powerful weapons it had seized in Iraq after the Shiite-dominate military had fled Anbar province.

Ford was put on the defensive by Sackur, who tried to smear the “moderate” Syrian rebels by pointing out that they were often involved with Ahrar ash-Sham in joint military actions against the Syrian army. Ford stood his ground pointing out that while insisting on a pluralist post-Assad society in Syria, he distinguished between ISIS and al-Nusra on one side and Ahrar ash-Sham on the other.

As it happens, the leaders of Ahrar ash-Sham were among the Islamist prisoners released by Bashar al-Assad in 2011 in order to unleash the sectarian dynamic that would endear him to people like Hersh, Cockburn, Fisk et al. They preferred the clean-shaven man in a necktie even though his regime would cause Suharto or Pinochet to look benign by comparison. Most of Ahrar ash-Sham’s funding comes from Qatar and Kuwait with the USA not only having zero connections to them, but going so far as to consider designating them as a terrorist group.

In a perfect world, groups such as Ahrar ash-Sham would play a much more minor role in the Syrian struggle. It has gained a foothold for obvious reasons:

  1. When the Syrian version of the Arab Spring commenced, Assad set in motion the killing machine that would force his victims to take up arms if only to protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of pro-regime gangs that were raping, torturing and killing civilians. These very localized self-defense militias came under pressure to get heavier weaponry after the Baathists began using tanks, heavy artillery and air power in a scorched earth campaign against Aleppo, Homs, and the suburbs of Damascus. In order to procure weapons, it was necessary to approach states such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—all of which had an Islamist agenda. The net result was that the peaceful and democratic process that had begun in the Spring of 2011 was forced into the background even if it has not disappeared. As Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami point out, there are 400 democratically elected councils in Syria today that adhere to the original vision of 2011.
  2. The Syrian countryside, which is the heartland of the revolution, is socially conservative. Poor people, as is the case in just about every underdeveloped country, tend to be religious. Islamist groups therefore operate in relatively fertile ground. For people like Seymour Hersh, this is anathema. Sharia law, cries of “Alluah Akbar” on the battleground, beards, etc. are far more frightening than a barrel bomb or a sarin gas attack (Hersh made an appearance today on the dreadful Democracy Now radio show repeating his canard that the rebels gassed their own families in East Ghouta 3 years ago.)

Based on this litmus test, the logical choice would be to support Israel against Hamas, a group that was spawned by the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. If you are terrified by Ahrar ash-Sham, you might as well be terrified of Hamas who at least understood what side was worth supporting in Syria:

Leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas turned publicly against their long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Friday, endorsing the revolt aimed at overthrowing his dynastic rule.

The policy shift deprives Assad of one of his few remaining Sunni Muslim supporters in the Arab world and deepens his international isolation. It was announced in Hamas speeches at Friday prayers in Cairo and a rally in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas went public after nearly a year of equivocating as Assad’s army, largely led by fellow members of the president’s Alawite sect, has crushed mainly Sunni protesters and rebels.

In a Middle East split along sectarian lines between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, the public abandonment of Assad casts immediate questions over Hamas’s future ties with its principal backer Iran, which has stuck by its ally Assad, as well as with Iran’s fellow Shi’ite allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

“I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, visiting Egypt from the Gaza Strip, told thousands of Friday worshippers at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque.

“We are marching towards Syria, with millions of martyrs,” chanted worshippers at al-Azhar, home to one of the Sunni world’s highest seats of learning. “No Hezbollah and no Iran.

“The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”

April 24, 2016

Taking out the Baathist garbage

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Members of the Baathist amen corner

Daniel Lazare

Jonathan Marshall

John Hanrahan

Back in 1979, just having dropped out of the SWP after 11 years and resolving to put politics behind me, I found myself like an old Dalmatian responding to the sound of the firehouse bell. Where was the fire? It was in Central America.

Picking up the Village Voice on a weekly basis that year started out mostly as an exercise in finding out which novelist was breaking new ground but by 1980 I began turning first to Alexander Cockburn’s Press Clips column for its debunking of articles by pro-Reagan NY Times reporters like Stephen Kinzer.

I also began to rely heavily on the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh and others who had made their reputation reporting about Vietnam. When he broke the story of the My Lai massacre, antiwar activists like myself were relieved that our work became a lot easier because of the horrors he revealed.

The role of investigative journalists in that period was inextricably linked to the Cold War. While most of us from either a Trotskyist or New Left background felt little identification with the Kremlin, our main focus was on Washington and its imperialist designs on El Salvador, Angola, and other places that fit neatly into the USSR versus USA scheme of things. There were some who went so far as to back Soviet intervention even when it was problematic at best. For example, both the Spartacist League and Alexander Cockburn supported the Soviet military in Afghanistan.

Fast forwarding to 2016, we find a most curious realignment. Stephen Kinzer, who wrote filthy propaganda about how the Sandinistas were responsible for a toy shortage in Nicaragua, is now one of Bashar al-Assad’s top propagandists in the USA while Seymour Hersh writes articles accusing the Syrian rebels for carrying out a My Lai-like massacre in East Ghouta just to provoke an American intervention.

When you have a convergence between one of the early 1980s top journalistic villains and heroes, something very odd is going on. I would suggest that it can be explained by the Spartacist/Cockburn line on Afghanistan except that it is being advanced on behalf of a Russia that has no connection to the Cold War except for those on the left for whom time stood still. Maybe because Putin was in the CP once upon a time, this means that he should be given critical support. Who knows?

After five years of Baathist state terrorism, the failure of the heroes of the 1980s, including Noam Chomsky who swears by Patrick Cockburn, is unprecedented. You would have to go back to the Moscow Trials, when the Nation Magazine and the NY Times were defending Stalin, to see such a failure of both intellect and ethics.

If you monitor the left press both online and in print for the Baathist amen corner’s latest output, you can feel swamped. I suppose I am a bit of a masochist to wade through this material but maybe it is the lasting influence of Alexander Cockburn’s Press Clips column that keeps me at it. If only he could have been willing to see the Kremlin with as much alacrity as he saw Washington and wrote on that basis, the Syrians would have far more friends on the left than enemies today.

Speaking of enemies, three articles appeared on my radar screen recently that epitomize the treachery of the left on Syria. Two of them appear on Consortium News, a website launched by Robert Parry in 1995. Parry was a hero in the 1980s, exposing the Nicaraguan contra cocaine traffic in the USA. Now his website is devoted to spewing lies about Syria even if most of the reporting on American subversion in places like Brazil or Venezuela is reliable.

The other article appeared on Truthout, a website that like Consortium is generally reliable except on Syria. I have it bookmarked and check it every day for items that are well-researched and well-written but when it comes to Syria, all bets are off.

On March 31, an article by Daniel Lazare titled “How US-Backed War on Syria Helped ISIS” appeared on Consortium. Lazare was a member of the Workers League in the early 70s (the predecessor to WSWS.org) and obviously retains some of its ideological baggage. I say that as someone who was a great admirer of Lazare for a number of years. I just checked the Marxmail archives and discovered my crossposting of a number of his articles.

The article takes issue with the report that the Syrian army allowed ISIS to take over Palmyra, the city that it has retaken with an intense Russian air attack. Consistent with the belief that outside powers have the right to bomb Syria with impunity, Lazare faults the USA for not joining Russia in its air attack on the jihadists: “So the U.S. and its allies helped Islamic State by tying down Assad’s forces in the north so that it could punch through in the center. But that’s not all the U.S. did. It also helped by suspending bombing as the Islamic State neared Palmyra.” He adds, “The U.S. thus incentivized ISIS to press forward” because it had not bombed ISIS forces “while they were traversing miles of open desert roads” as the NY Times put it. Apparently Lazare would have liked to see the USA engaging in the same kind of turkey shoot that its bombers engaged in as Saddam’s defeated army was straggling home to Iraq back in 1991.

It is so bizarre to see an anti-imperialist like Lazare get worked up over the USA being insufficiently bellicose in Syria. Apparently, when it comes to bombing ISIS, imperialism can play a progressive role.

Turning to the immigrant crisis in Europe, Lazare writes:

But as much everyone would like to blame it all on Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others of that ilk, none of this is really their fault. To the contrary, the West’s disastrous Syria policy is entirely the creation of nice-guy liberals like Barack Obama. Desperate to appease both Israel and the Sunni oil sheiks, all of whom for various reasons wanted Assad to go, he signed on to a massive Sunni jihad that has turned Syria into a charnel house.

With death estimates now running as high as 470,000, which is to say one person in nine [the idea that Syria had a population of less than five million is as big a joke of everything else in Lazare’s article], the idea that massive violence like this could remain confined to a single country was absurd to begin with. Yet Obama went along regardless.

Like everybody else in the Baathist amen corner, Lazare’s circumlocution on the Syrian bloodbath refuses to put the blame on Bashar al-Assad. The Independent, a newspaper that features the pro-Assad columns of Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn and that can not possibly be mistaken for the Washington Post or the NY Times, reported on October 7, 2015 that Assad has killed seven times as many civilians as ISIS so if Lazare is upset over Syria turning into a charnel house, he might want to direct his polemical ire against the man whose cause he has so squalidly taken up.

On April 20, another rotten Consortium article cropped up, this time by Jonathan Marshall who like Parry had a distinguished investigative journalism career before his brain turned to rot over Syria. He wrote a book on the drug trade in Lebanon that was published by Stanford University Press, a prestigious academic press. But his article “How The New Yorker Mis-Reports Syria” is a sleazy bid to bolster a blood-soaked dictatorship that has the same relationship to Assad that Christopher Hitchens had to the Shiite sectarian regime that George W. Bush installed in Iraq: blatantly apologetic.

Adopting a herculean task, Marshall attempts to defend Bashar al-Assad’s March 30, 2011 speech that states:

And I am sure you all know that Syria is facing a great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and far-away countries, with some inside the country. This conspiracy depends, in its timing not in its form, on what is happening in other Arab countries.

While there is ample evidence that the USA had supported anti-Baathist forces inside Syria during the Bush administration, Marshall has little to say about the policy of the Obama White House. As has been graphically illustrated in the Jeffrey Goldberg article based on interviews with Obama, there was a rejection of “regime change” after he took office.

Furthermore, despite citing a Wikileaks cable that pointed to anti-Baathist efforts prior to Obama’s presidency, Marshall failed to refer to one that highlighted relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, its supposed arch-enemy once he took office. This was dated October 1, 2009 when supposedly the USA was preparing a proxy war on Syria, with Saudi Arabia as its most reliable ally:



Thu Oct 01 00:00:00 +0200 2009


Embassy Riyadh

Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s unexpected attendance at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opening, and his lengthy meeting with King Abdullah on the margins, has encouraged speculation about further Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and its potential regional implications. Post contacts describe media reports of the meeting as largely accurate, noting that Lebanese government formation, Palestinian reconciliation, and Asad’s invitation  to King Abdullah to visit Damascus dominated the agenda.

The cable is borne out by a NY Times article titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” dated March 26, 2009. It is the kind of article that people such as Jonathan Marshall deftly sidestep.

Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Today, Syria seems to be coming in from the cold. A flurry of diplomatic openings with the West and Arab neighbors has raised hopes of a chastened and newly flexible Syrian leadership that could help stabilize the region. But Syria has its own priorities, and a series of upheavals here — including Israel’s recent war in Gaza — make it difficult to say where this new dialogue will lead.

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

You can read a slew of articles like this between 2009 and 2010. They coincide with the now suppressed Vogue puff piece on the reformer Bashar al-Assad and his glamorous wife. It was only when the Syrian people had the impudence to demand social justice and an end to repression that “the conspiracy” was revealed. Apparently when people began protesting peacefully in the streets of Syria, it was all a plot to remove a wise and benign president who had after all received 99 percent of the votes in the last election.

To bolster his case that Assad was not all that bad, Marshall cites Joshua Landis who retweeted the reference. Landis wrote just after Assad gave the March 30, 2011 speech that “For those who continue to believe in the possibility of reform and not regime-change, this speech was reassuring.” Mind you, this is the same Joshua Landis who wrote in a 2005 NY Times op-ed: “For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority.”

It is utterly beyond the purview of someone like Jonathan Marshall to cite an Arab leftist such as Bassam Haddad. The Baathist amen corner consists almost exclusively of Western commentators whose Orientalism is palpable.

Turning to the final entry in the rogue’s gallery, there is a very long article in Truthout by John Hanrahan titled “As in Libya, Avaaz Campaigned for Syria No-Fly Zone That Even Top Generals Opposed” that is directed against a campaign mounted by a group launched by Moveon.org in 2007. I personally have problems with no-fly zones but recognize that it is understandable why people being bombed mercilessly might ask for help wherever they can get it, even if the USA never had any attention to implement one as was indicated in the Jeffrey Goldberg article. In fact, if there was simply an across-the-board non-intervention policy by the USA, Assad would have been overthrown long ago. When the USA intervened to block the shipment of MANPAD’s into Syria early on, it meant that the Syrian air force would have free reign.

After 3500 words on Avaaz’s past campaigns, Hanrahan follows the same path as many pro-Assad “investigative reporters”, both professional and amateur, have trod. In a section titled “Avaaz Has Long Favored No-Fly Zone in Syria, Based in Part on the Dodgy Sarin Gas Story”, he cites arch-propagandist Robert Parry of the abovementioned Consortium and an outfit called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) that was founded by ex-CIA agent Ray McGovern. I dealt with the VIPS report not long after the sarin gas attack:

The sources for VIPS’ [a group led by Ray McGovern] most sensational claims, it turns out, are Canadian eccentric Michel Chossudovsky’s conspiracy site Global Research and far-right shock-jock Alex Jones’s Infowars. The specific article that Giraldi references carries the intriguing headline “Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?” (His answer, in case you wondered, is yes.) The author is one Yossef Bodansky—an Israeli-American supporter of Assad’s uncle Rifaat, who led the 1982 massacre in Hama. Bodansky’s theory was widely circulated after an endorsement from Rush Limbaugh. A whole paragraph from Bodansky’s article makes it into the VIPS letter intact, with only a flourish added at the end.

That’s some kind of investigative journalism going on there, just the kind of thing they probably teach to RT.com reporters before they start their job.

Hanrahan also cites Charles Glass, another charter member of the Baathist amen corner, as well as Adam Johnson, FAIR’s resident Assadist, and Patrick Cockburn who is definitely for a no-fly zone but only for the Kurds. All these people plagiarize each other, making the same bogus arguments based on faulty data over and over and over again. If they are supposed to be telling the truth about Syria, god help us.

Like Parry, Hersh, Cockburn, Salon’s Patrick L. Smith, Charles Glass, Kinzer and other Baathist fan boys, John Hanrahan has been a reporter for the bourgeois press—in his case the Washington Post. Whatever they learned in journalism school obviously gave them the skills they need to turn out bullshit in the “alternative” media.

Hanrahan’s credits are listed beneath the article,  including this: “He has written extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.” Among its fellows has been Dexter Filkins, Hodding Carter, and Anthony Lewis. So the sleazy Ivy League school knew what they were doing when they lined up Hanrahan to write for them.

Probably the most depressing thing about Hanrahan is his involvement with ExposeFacts, a website that includes Barbara Ehrenreich on its editorial board. Does she have an idea of the crap that is coming out in the name of a website she is associated with? My guess, probably not. I had a momentary urge to see what she has written about Syria but did not want to feel any more disgusted than I am right now.

April 22, 2016


Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

“Hockney” opened today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and at Metrograph in New York, and at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles. It is an exquisitely beautiful documentary about one of the world’s most respected artists who was born into a working class family in Bradford, England seventy-eight years ago. He shares that background with Andy Warhol whose father was a coal miner from Pittsburgh. Like Warhol, David Hockney is gay with the major difference being a willingness to represent the male figure erotically but by no means as daring as a Robert Mapplethorpe photo.

Essentially, Hockney’s paintings are a throwback to the 19th century, concentrating on portraits and landscapes but done in a way that is distinctly modern. Whether you have never seen his work or are familiar with it like me, the film is a totally engaging museum-like tour of paintings that are a feast for the eyes. As a human being, Hockney is by no means exceptional. His life is all about his work and completely absent of the kind of drama Van Gogh or Basquiat experienced. Unlike Picasso, who he regards as his major influence, he never painted anything like “Guernica”. Even during the depths of the AIDS epidemic, his paintings were more mournful than angry. Oddly enough, his only other “social” concern has been about tobacco, a weed that he is devoted to. Early in the film, he states that he is often tempted to put up a pro-smoking billboard in health-conscious Los Angeles.

His most representative work is devoted to swimming pools in Los Angeles. Notwithstanding the seeming banality of the subject, each one transforms the material into something that becomes as sublime as Monet’s lily pads. Despite the contempt that many people hold Los Angeles in, Hockney was smitten with the city from the start. He explains that it had the aura of motion pictures that mesmerized him in his humdrum home town in the 1950s. Born in 1937, he describes himself as belonging to the “pre-TV” generation. Going to the “pictures” was a big occasion for him and his parents so the idea of being near Hollywood inspired him.

He was also drawn to the beach and surfer world like a moth to a flame. There were obvious homoerotic reasons for that as well as his fascination with the interaction of sunlight and water, something that was reflected in all of his landscapes that have the ability to render a reality more real than reality itself.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the film is Hockney’s ability to explain how he has evolved as an artist and even more importantly to communicate the spirit of his work. In one memorable moment, he muses on the famous swimming pool paintings. When you see someone standing next to a pool about to dive in, you see his or her dappled reflection in the water. The contrast between the two representations of the human form are meant to create a kind of dynamism that gives the images much more interest than their ostensibly mundane origins. Hockney is very articulate and intelligent so listening to him is an experience that no museum tour can compare to.

Despite his advanced years, Hockney remains active in his studio. Always one to borrow eclectically from the various techniques other artists have introduced, his latest work contains images captured on the IPhone and IPad. For a glimpse into his work, I strongly recommend a visit to http://www.hockneypictures.com/.


April 21, 2016

Khiyana: a review

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

“Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution” is required reading, especially for those on the left who never thought that there was a revolution to begin with. For the past five years at least, a debate of sorts has raged on the left about Syria. Unfortunately, the side that implicitly or explicitly supports Bashar al-Assad has simply refused to engage with those on the other side. They pretend that the Syrian people do not exist just as they pretend that the supporters of the revolution do not exist. For the hardened ideologues of the more degraded “anti-imperialist” subculture, we are seen as CIA or Mossad agents even though many of us have been active on the left for decades or longer.

Ultimately, this is the result of bracketing out the class relations within Syria that practically beg for a Marxist analysis. With so much of the left either determined to see the conflict as one involving states rather than class, the results are predictable and all the more so when the rebels are reduced to an undifferentiated clot of “jihadis” or “extremists”. For those willing to see beyond the stereotypes, Khiyana is a good place to start—a book that belongs on shelf next to Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s “Burning Country”.

In broad brush strokes, the book functions as an analysis of the unfolding struggle within Syria as well as a source of critiques of those on the left whose “anti-imperialism” has been built on shaky foundations, namely a refusal to examine the struggle on its own terms or relying on material that distorts it beyond recognition. With that in mind, I would like to focus on two of the book’s key articles.

Sam Charles Hamad’s “The Rise of Daesh in Syria—some Inconvenient Truths” is a fifty-two-page analysis of the Islamic State that effectively debunks the claim that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State. To give you an idea of the need for such a rebuttal, consider the results of a Google search on “Saudi Arabia” and “ISIS” that reaches into the stratosphere: 16,700,000. At the top of the list is an article that is typical. Titled “Saudi Arabia Admits to John Kerry That It Created ISIS… But There is a Twist”, it appeared on the Zero Hedge website, one of the Internet’s prime conspiracy theory outlets. Like most conspiracists, these people are always looking for the gotcha quote or secret document that finally exposes The Truth. In many ways, it is the same kind of mindset that gets fixated on the temperature it takes for aircraft steel to melt. Zero Hedge sees a quote from a 04/20/2016 FT.com article as proof positive that Saudi Arabia created ISIS in response to Obama’s intervention in the region.

After the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to a lightning Isis offensive in 2014, even the late Prince Saud al-Faisal, the respected Saudi foreign minister, remonstrated with John Kerry, US secretary of state, that “Daesh [Isis] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa” — the Tehran-aligned Shia Islamist ruling party of Iraq.

Contrary to conspiracy-monger spin-doctoring, al-Faisal was only making an uncontroversial observation that Daesh got a foothold in Mosul only because the Shi’ite sectarian ruling party was oppressing Sunnis. To assume that “our response” means a confession of guilt by the Saudi monarch is first class idiocy but par for the course.

If you take the trouble to read Hamad’s article (and you should), you will understand the true relationship between not only the Saudi state and Daesh but the state and jihadi type groups in general, including al-Qaeda and its franchise in Syria, the al-Nusra front. Despite the tendency to assume that such Wahhabist groups are spawned by Saudi Arabia because it is a Wahhabist theocracy, Hamad produces a mountain of evidence showing that groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are its deadly enemies.

As opposed to most on the left who sling around terms like Salafist or Wahhabist interchangeably, Hamad takes considerable trouble to root them in the region’s history with the sort of erudition that is necessary to separate fact from fiction. To start with, Wahhabism is a current within Salafi Islam, a revivalist movement that sought to ground worship in the beliefs and practices of first generation Muslims, the as-Salafiyyah (pious forefathers). Mohammad al-Wahhab was an 18th century cleric who allied with the Al-Saud clan that eventually created the forerunner of the modern Saudi state. Warlike from the beginning, it attacked the Shia and Sufi sects as kuffar (unbelievers). So far this sounds just like ISIS, right?

Only if you do not understand that for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Saudi royal family is kuffar as well. That should be obvious at the outset from his belief that he is the new Khalifa, or steward of the Caliphate. The goal of ISIS is to create an Islamic state that honors no national boundaries. As such all states in the Middle East have to be subsumed under its authority, including Saudi Arabia. Muslims will belong to the new Caliphate, not any particular state nor take orders from the government that rules it. In a word, it is anti-national.

In November 2014 al-Baghdadi recorded an audio message declaring his intention to liberate the Saudi people from the Saloul, a derogatory name for the ruling family. Daesh threatened to invade Saudi Arabia from its redoubt in Anbar province. The Saudis placed sufficient weight in this threat to construct a 600-mile wall of the sort that Donald Trump could only admire. Like Trump, the Saudi royal family was deathly afraid of Islamic extremists. Unlike Trump, the Saudi fear was rooted in reality.

Despite Saudi efforts to thwart Daesh, the group has launched guerrilla attacks along the border with Iraq near the city of Arar that involved suicide bombers. But the more serious threat comes from Saudi citizens who have joined Daesh. The attacks are directed against Shia worshippers with the hope of sparking a sectarian war such as the kind that has been tearing apart Iraq and Syria.

Even more contrary to the dominant “anti-imperialist” narrative on Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have supported groups in Syria that have no connection to either ISIS or al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. Specifically, when Daesh and the FSA had a pitched battle in Deraa province, the FSA used weaponry supplied by the Saudis.

The same patterns exist for Qatar and Turkey, two other nations that have the reputation for being responsible for Daesh. Both have instead donated funds and arms to either secular nationalists or Islamists who have been the target of Daesh savagery. As opposed to the reductionist tendencies of the Assadist left, there is an abundance of evidence that such countries have an affinity for the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that was ousted by a military coup in Egypt three years ago for allegedly promoting an Islamist takeover. So who do you think the Saudis backed? The secular-minded military of course. Class always trumps confession, after all.

Hamad concludes his article with an astute observation on the responsibilities of the left today:

Clearly an entity like Daesh, as with all forms of chauvinist ultra-sectarian Salafi Jihadism, it represents a wider phenomenon within the Arab and Sunni Islamic world, but this phenomenon will not be confronted by supporting an order whose brutality, nourishes the roots of these kind of fascistic entities. The order is itself fascistic. These forces feed off one another—the exterminatory logic of Daesh is fed by the continued sectarian slaughter being carried out by the Assad regime, Iran and Russia, while the logic of the Assad regime, with its appropriation of the ‘war on terror’ is most forcefully reinforced by Daesh.

There is a third alternative. And it’s this alternative that the conspiracy narratives about Saudi funding, CIA plots, Gulf proxies and Western-backed rebels, truly seek to obscure. As with the Sahwat against Daesh’s predecessors in Iraq, the Syrian rebels are the only force capable of tackling Daesh and its more destructive root cause, Assad. That is why it is an imperative for all who support these revolutionary forces to expose these craven narratives for what they are.

It is those “craven narratives” that are the subject of Assad an-Nar’s “Socialism and the Democratic Wager”, a forty-page article that serves as a kind of introduction to the articles in Khiyana.

In addition to its critique of Baathist loyalists in Russia, Britain and the USA, it offers a useful theoretical framework for understanding the Syrian revolution, one that differs sharply from the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution that the author argues is a disservice to the democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Whatever one makes of the critique, surely there must be an acknowledgement of the failure of those schooled in Trotskyist politics to understand the process—starting with Tariq Ali.

The first paragraph sets the tone for the article’s ambition, which is to re-orient the left to MENA reality:

The narcissism of the left is so thoroughgoing that it now conceives revolution and counterrevolution in terms of its own worn obsessions rather than proceeding from events. Thus the left has become largely irrelevant to the calculations of those actually engaged in revolution. But we proceed differently. Contemporary revolution calls for a reassessment of everything the left has come to believe because the raison d’etre of the left is to serve the social revolution, and this now positively demands such a rethink. Therefore this essay is unashamedly about the contemporary left and its impasse.

In the section titled Permanent Revolution, the article hones in on a theory that practically defines Trotskyism, namely one that started out as a way of understanding the struggle against Czarism that culminated in a socialist revolution but eventually became a kind of universal categorical imperative to be applied to the colonial revolution.

The author argues that the theory has been falsified by events. Colonialism disappeared across the planet without necessarily being the outcome of a 1917 type socialist revolution. Even in the 20s and 30s, countries like Mexico and Turkey were acting independently of imperialism but under a bourgeois leadership. (The article does not mention it but both nations gave political asylum to Leon Trotsky.)

If your condition for providing solidarity is based on conformity to Trotsky’s theory, naturally there will be a tendency to denigrate struggles that don’t measure up to his lofty standards. Although the article does not mention Tariq Ali, this certainly describes his sneering attitude toward the Arab Spring:

In September 2013, just a month after East Ghouta had been attacked with sarin gas by Assad’s military, Ali took to the pages of Guernica to pose the question “What is a Revolution?” His standards are exacting:

The notion that the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the carrier of a Syrian revolution is as risible as the idea that the Brotherhood was doing the same in Egypt. A brutal civil war with atrocities by both sides is currently being fought. Did the regime use gas or other chemical weapons? We do not know with certainty. The strikes envisaged by the United States are designed to prevent Assad’s military advances from defeating the opposition and re-taking the country. That is what is at stake in Syria.

Whatever else may or may not be happening in Syria, it is far removed from a revolution. Only the most blinkered sectarian fantasist could imagine this to be the case.

You’ll note the utter disregard for what the Muslim Brotherhood meant for Egyptian society–an attempt to have a democratically elected government for the first time in its history. This rather “blinkered sectarian”, if you will, dismissal of a genuine opening for a more democratic phase that the working class and social movements could use for its own advantage was a clear indication that there was not much difference between Ali and the more exotic forms of Trotskyist sectarianism found in the post-Healyite netherworld. This is not to speak of his sarin gas obfuscation. For Ali, Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry et al, the preferred narrative was a “false flag” operation that accepted the possibility that rebels would kill their own women and children in order to spark an American intervention—a cynical excuse for Assad’s savagery widely accepted if not trumpeted by his fan club worldwide. It subtly points to a racist interpretation of Arab fanaticism, namely that they don’t value human life as much as the West.

As opposed to this kind of schematic ultimatism, the Khiyana article restores the question of democracy to its proper place in Marxism. The concluding paragraph is a challenge to the left:

Today we live in the era of democratic revolutions with uncertain consequences. The last four decades or so of neoliberalism was responsible for the decomposition of the working class shaped by the post-war years of economic boom, resulting in its fateful dissolution as a collective subject, though a cursory examination of the balance sheet at least indicates that neoliberalism cannot unravel its own contradictions or the deeper contradictions of global capitalism. The left needs to decide whether to wager on the social and political upheavals of the neoliberal era or stand back and wait for the real world to decide to conform to the old theories. We must make the democratic wager. If the contradictions of the present lead to more collective forms of social struggle then we win. If it does not work, that would prove that socialism had become a utopia and we must simply plunder what we can. Like Pascal’s wager on faith, we win either way.

There is much more than can be said about this article that seeks not only to identify the key issues in the Middle East in general and Syria in particular. It throws open a window and allows some fresh air in to defog the cloistered chambers of a Marxism that has grown stale with dogma and its own rectitude. I promise that even if you don’t agree with the author, it will challenge to think more deeply about a conflict that like Spain in the 30s and Vietnam in the 60s forces the left to confront difficult issues with openness and bravery. Nothing short of this will serve us over the long haul for human emancipation.

Khiyana is available from Amazon.com. I also have a few copies left that will not require a sales tax, nor will go toward enriching Jeff Bezos. Contact me at lnp3@panix.com for more information.

April 19, 2016

Do 1500 year old theological debates explain Stalin? Roland Boer’s latest nonsense

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

Roland Boer

The Australian theologian and Joseph Stalin publicist Roland Boer is a rather ubiquitous figure on the left. He has turned up on Yoshie Furuhashi’s blog (aka MRZine) and the journal of the British SWP. He was the recipient of the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for a book titled “In the Vale of Tears: On Marxism and Theology”, the final installment in a five-part series that for some unfathomable reason has earned plaudits from people such as Paul LeBlanc. This book has been published by Historical Materialism (and republished in paperback by the ISO). Since his admirers (except for Furuhashi) have shown a marked aversion to Stalinism, it is a bit of a mystery why they seem to overlook one of his main activities—blogging at Stalin’s Moustache. For some on the anti-Stalinist left, the blog appears harmless. Scott McLemee put it this way in a November 2014 Inside Higher Education column:

Anyone attempting to extract ideological significance from that title does so at his or her own peril. Boer himself indicates that it was inspired by General Tito’s remark “Stalin is known the world over for his moustache, but not for his wisdom.”

Frankly, there is an ideological significance to the blog, whatever you make of the moustache. In fact, Roland Boer is one of the Internet’s prime sources of Stalinist ideology alongside Grover Furr and some of the more obscure websites associated with tiny sects hoping to breathe new life in a moribund movement. At one time, someone like Boer would have had a lot more traction. When SDS self-demolished in the early 70s, there were any number of Stalin imitators such as Mike Klonsky and Robert Avakian who after crawling out of the wreckage would have hoisted Boer on their shoulders. Ironically, his biggest admirers today happen to be people with a heavy commitment to anti-Stalinist politics. Go figure.

I doubt that anybody would spend money on a Roland Boer book, especially the HM hardcover that goes for $167. But if you have a morbid curiosity in how he ties theology to Stalinism, I recommend a look at his article “A Materialist Doctrine of Good and Evil: Stalin’s Revision of Marxist Anthropology” that appears in an online journal titled Crisis and Critique whose latest issue is devoted to an examination of “Stalin, what does the name stand for?” I will be returning to some of the articles that appear in this issue but want to direct my fire now at Boer’s article that is a travesty of biblical proportions—speaking theologically.

Boer’s case for Stalin rests on an analogy with the debate between two important figures in Christian theology, Pelagius and St. Augustine. Pelagius, a critic of St. Augustine, made the case that human beings were capable of living without sin as a result of exercising free will. St. Augustine, a firm believer in original sin, considered Pelagius a heretic. (Since I wrote a BA thesis on St. Augustine, I am more familiar with his ideas. With respect to Pelagius, we only know him through excerpts found in the Christian polemics aimed at him.)

For Boer, there are two phases of Stalin’s career, the first that mapped to Pelagius and the second to St. Augustine. The Pelagian phase was reflected in Stakhanovism, a form of labor exploitation in Stalin’s Russia that Boer regards as exemplary. The Augustinian phase was reflected in the post-Kirov assassination period when Stalin resorted to mass arrests, show trials and other forms of terror that were necessary because there were many Russians who acted treasonously just like Adam and Eve.

It goes without saying that this is pure madness. Leaving aside Boer’s dubious analogies and brazen justification for Stalin’s barbaric rule, there is zero engagement with the Marxist method in his article. Essentially, Boer is a historian of ideas. His interest in Stalin is not in what he did but in what he said. The article is overflowing with citations from Stalin’s writings, all in the interest in supporting the author’s analogies. And when he does stray a few inches from this methodology, the results are shockingly in defiance of historical accuracy.

Boer pretty much admits that he is not interested in Soviet history. In a section subtitled “A New Human Nature” (the term human nature is a tip-off that this man is not a Marxist), he says that the details of “the dual industrialisation and collectivisation drive, embodied in the two five-year plans from 1928 to 1937” are are not “my direct concern here”. Well, who can blame him? Why try to come up with counter-arguments to Isaac Deutscher who he describes as engaging in “ritual denunciations” of the failures of the forced industrialization? (What a fitting tribute to the man whose name adorns the prize Boer received.) That would divert him from his real task, which is to calculate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

He moves directly into a defense of Stakhanovism that he regards as both an expression of pure socialism and a modern-day counterpart to the Pelagian heresy of over 1500 years ago:

Indeed, Stakhanovism of the 1930s was not only the height of the passion and enthusiasm for the socialist project, but it was also a very Pelagian phenomenon. In some respects, the movement may be seen as an effort to find a new form of extra-economic compulsion, particularly within a socialist framework. The problem of foot-dragging noted above, manifested in managers and workers blunting expectations by creatively recalibrating production quotas and expected work practices, led to a search for new ways of encouraging them to be part of the new project. Yet this is to depict Stakhanovism as primarily an initiative from above. Instead, it was a much more complex phenomenon, catching the government off-guard through the genuine expression of workers’ aspirations but then leading to a whole new policy framework. The result was the celebration of and encouragement to emulate the ‘heroes of labour’, modest and ordinary people who became models of a new type of human being. The names include, among many others, the coal miner Aleksei Stakhanov, the automobile worker Aleksandr Busygin, the shoe maker Nikolai Smetanin, the textile workers Evdokiia and Mariia Vinogradov, the railway train driver Petr Krivonos, the timber worker Vladimir Musinskii, the sailor and arctic explorer Ivan Papanin, the farmer Konstantin Borin, the sugar beet farmer Mariia Demchenko, and the tractor driver Pasha Angelina. A complex phenomenon it was, but my primary interest is in the outlines of the new person Stalin begins to see emerging, if not a new type of human nature characterised by the ‘will to socialism’, by ‘passionate Bolshevik desire’, by emulation as the ‘communist method of building socialism’, if not by Bolshevik ‘tempo’ and grit’.

If you are looking for any kind of detailed account of the role of the Stakhanovite in Soviet society, you won’t find it in Boer’s article. His main purpose is to put forward an ideal type, not to bother with the messy details of how such workers fit into the bigger picture of a society that was ruled by repression rather than moral appeal such as existed in Cuba during the early years of the revolution.

For a Marxist take on Stakhanovism, I recommend an article by N. Markin that appeared in The New International in February 1936. Titled “The Stakhanovist Movement”, it points out that the records achieved by the miner Stakhanov and the auto worker Busygin have to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt.

To start with, when the Soviet press blared the news that Stakhanov had drilled 102 tons of coal in one day, it failed to report that this was mainly the result of a reorganization of the work flow in the mine that divided the crew into drillers and non-drillers who were assigned the task of shoring up the walls, etc. Stalin’s flunky Grigol Ordjonikidze admitted as such to a Stakhanovist Congress held in Moscow: “It is sometimes thought that a single man [Stakhanov] produced 102 tons. This is not true. These 102 tons were produced by an entire brigade.” Markin also pointed out that the larger amounts of coal that Stakhanov drilled in a single day (while not 102 tons, were still in excess of the typical day’s result) could not be produced on an ongoing basis since the efforts were so exhausting. It would be like running a marathon every day.

The same issues arose with Busygin the auto worker:

The most famous record-holder after Stakhanov himself, Busygin (already mentioned above) finds himself in a similar situation. Hardly had the newspapers broadcasted the news of his records (Busygin, you see, has licked the smiths of Ford) when it turned out that Busygin, the very next day “was unable to work full speed, his drill not having been properly prepared”. On the following day Bosygin “stood idle for two hours because the section administration had not prepared the drill, and had not changed the dies”. Still a day later Bosygin remained idle for 1½ hours, and in addition to this he began producing a “completely waste product. It was established that there was a mix-up in the grade of steel in the supply section” (Pravda, Nov. 23 and 24, 1935).

Finally, what is missing from Boer’s discussion of Stakhanovism, a movement supposedly fuelled by ardor for communism, is that it was based on piece-work wages, a form of exploitation that Marx defined “as the form of wages most suited to the capitalist mode of production.” People emulated Stakhanov because that was the way you could afford food, clothing and other necessities of life. This led to differentiation in the working class, with an average worker getting 170 rubles doing the same job as a Stakhanovist who gets 400 rubles based on greater output. And all of this was in the name of transitioning from socialism to communism.

Markin cites Trud, a Russian newspaper whose name means Labor, for the bitter conflicts that were arising between the two types of workers:

In the same number of Trud is related how two workers “conducted a malicious agitation against the Stakhanovist methods. Jagtirev sought to persuade the Stakhanovist worker Kurlitchev not to work. As a result the work on this section was impaired”. The Stakhanovists complain that it is only “when there is supervision that the work moves ahead.” (Trud, Sept. 24, 1925) In Odessa, in the heavy machinery construction plant, the worker, Poliakov hurled himself at the Stakhanovist Korenozh with an iron beam. Poliakov has been expelled from the trade union, driven from his job and it is planned to hand him over to a tribunal as an example. (Trud, Oct. 23, 1935) In Marionpole, in the Azorstal plant, two workers, Chisjakov and Khomenko were sentenced to four and two years imprisonment for having threatened to kill a Stakhanovist brigader.

All this is airbrushed out of Boer’s article, just as many Soviet era photographs were altered to exclude Bolshevik leaders who had gotten on Stalin’s wrong side. Although most of them had become “enemies of the people” long before the Kirov assassination, it was that event that prompted Stalin to launch a bloody repression against millions of Soviet citizens, as well as one man who had already been exiled: Leon Trotsky.

I should mention that the N. Markin referred to above was the pen name of Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son. Although the official cause of his death in 1938 was complications following an appendectomy, some scholars believe he was assassinated just like his father.

Boer’s explanation for what he calls “the Red Terror” is an exercise in disingenuousness. He excuses it as the appropriate if somewhat excessive response to an assassination of a Soviet official. However, once again he is not interested in whether Stalin was justified but instead how all this fits in to his Pelagus-St. Augustine toy model:

The trigger for the major demonstration trials of the 1930s was the assassination in December 1934 of Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad Party branch. As with the assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918, this prompted the sense of an imminent coup and a vigorous response in seeking out the enemy within, resulting in the trial and execution of hundreds of thousands. The Red Terror reached a climax between 1936 and 1938: the trial of Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre (the Sixteen), of the anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre (the Seventeen), of the Anti-Soviet ‘Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites’ (the Twenty-One) and of the generals (most notably Marshall Tukhachevskii). Eventually, many of the Old Bolsheviks were caught up in the purge, including Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky. In the purge of the Red Army alone, 34,000 officers were arrested (although 11,500 were reinstated), including 476 senior commanders. However, I am less interested here in the public relations disaster that the trials became, in the level of Stalin’s involvement, in the nature of the opposition bloc and Trotsky’s involvement, in the widespread debate they continue to generate, as scholars seek causes while (rarely) defending them or (mostly) condemning them in a way that curiously echoes some elements of Cold War propaganda. Instead, I wish to focus on the way they reveal a more realistic (and arguably pessimistic) assessment of the propensity to evil.

Yes, why would Roland Boer be bothered with whether 34,000 officers were arrested even if this made the USSR vulnerable to a Nazi invasion. That’s not nearly as interesting as establishing Stalin’s conversion to an original sin understanding of why recalcitrant Soviet citizens balked at Stakhanovism or rebelled against being forced into collective farms. Such people were obviously acting on their baser instincts, a necessary outcome of Adam and Eve eating the apple that the snake gave them.

Years ago I read Victor Serge’s “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” that is a fictional version of the Kirov assassination that is about as evocative of the paranoia and savagery of the USSR in the 1930s that you can read anywhere. There is an online version that is not exactly that easy on the eyes but I do recommend that you take a look at it.

Before saying anything about Kirov, it is necessary to establish what happened in the wake of the assassination attempt on Lenin. Boer elides the differences between this incident and the murder of Kirov for good reason. They have little in common.

Lenin was shot by Fanny Kaplan on August 30, 1918. She was a member of the SR party whose leader Alexander Kerensky had been overthrown seven months earlier. In the crackdown on the SRs, 800 were executed.

Missing from Boer’s article is the political context. Starting in 1918, the USSR was being torn apart by counter-revolution. Two months before Kaplan’s assassination attempt, the SR’s had joined with the Czechoslovak Legion to destroy the revolution. With Czarist officers like Kolchak, Denikin and Yudenich leading the White Army, it is not unreasonable to view 1918 as the first attempt to impose fascism in the 20th century. With the SR’s collaborating with a military onslaught that was killing peasants by the thousands and organizing pogroms against the Jews, you are dealing with an entirely different set of circumstances than those that faced Stalin in 1934.

I don’t want to go into too much detail on the Kirov assassination but will simply supply the relevant passage from Wikipedia that appears sound. How anybody can compare this incident to the attempt on Lenin’s life in a period of civil war that threatened to topple Soviet rule is beyond comprehension. But then again, to write idiotic articles trying to explain the tyrant’s reign in terms of debates within Christianity 1500 years ago belongs to abnormal political psychology to begin with.

Alexander Barmine, a Soviet official who knew both Stalin and Kirov, asserted that Stalin arranged the murder with the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, who armed Nikolaev and sent him to assassinate Kirov. The death of Kirov was used by Stalin to ignite the Great Purge, where supporters of Trotsky and other suspected enemies testified that they were guilty of such a conspiracy against the Soviet government and arrested.

However the Great Purge is generally considered to have begun in the second-half of 1936, more than eighteen months after Kirov’s assassination. Initial reactions to Kirov’s death from the Soviet leadership were muted and it was only later cited as a pretext to purge the party.

Author and Marxist scholar Boris Nikolaevsky argued:

“One thing is certain: the only man who profited by the Kirov assassination was Stalin.”

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