Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 20, 2016

How the Syrian Revolution has transformed me

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011. The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one an…

Source: How the Syrian Revolution has transformed me

May 18, 2016

Socialism in the borscht belt

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

From pages 89-93 of Catskill Culture:

In the Catskills, comics often made jokes about college activists, and the guests seemed to share negative opinions about those antiwar groups, such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The hotels openly opposed unionization of their staff and certainly didn’t treat the lowest levels of the workers very well. Guests were very concerned with upward mobility, a logical desire given their Eastern European background.

Altogether, that made the Mountains seem conservative to me. By age sixteen, a junior in high school, I was very involved in civil rights and antiwar activities at home in North Miami Beach and, and by college I was a full-time activist. But I always felt like I had to keep my mouth shut about this during the Catskill summers. The few conversations I ever ever had about politics made me look like a far-left outsider. Thus, I was completely shocked at the age of seventeen to be introduced to the wonderful political ballads of Phil Ochs by a dining room colleague who brought a portable stereo to the Karmel Hotel’s staff quarters. (Ochs was one of the best known political folk singers in the 1960s.) Yet, overall, I experienced the Catskills as an encapsulated world that the activist 1960s had not yet captured. Certainly my radical friends were not even considering working summers in a place like the Catskills.

By the early 1970s, my mother was working at Chait’s Hotel in Accord, where political discussion was common, and she very much liked that atmosphere. I then realized that there was a leftist tradition in the Mountains, and my current process of revisiting the Catskills’ legacy has shown that radicalism was an important, even though small, part of Catskill culture. As early as the first two decades of the century, Workmen’s Circle chapters were significant components in the life of Jewish farmers and other residents, bringing a combination of socialism, union organizing, Yiddish culture, and benevolent association. In the 1930s, when some Jews believed in the Soviet Union’s plans for a Birobidjan homeland for the Jews, camps in the Catskills were organizing training centers for that effort. My mother toyed with the idea of going to Birobidjan, but my father talked her out of it.

The fervor of the 1930s was so strong that politics made its way even into hotels that were not expressly radical. A waiter who worked at the Huntington Lakeside told me how political entertainment might crop up in the 1930s: One of his guests was the famous Yiddish actor Mikhl Rosenberg, who organized a costume ball where he dressed the waiter up as Trotsky, and they lampooned the Moscow show trials of 1936. One man who worked a variety of jobs for seventy years recalls his own activism:

In 1934, we had a young Jewish group that studied Marxism. We had classes; we had a dramatic class. The girls and boys from Monticello [were] a very nice bunch. We had dances. And came May Day, we had a May Day demonstration. We had a speaker on the corner with an American flag. There was almost a riot there. The police department came out, the fire department came out, [and] the American Legion. Some guy threw a tomato. They thought the speaker picked up the flag to ward it off, but he didn’t. They hit the flag [with the tomato] and it bounced off and hit him in the face. Well, there was a trial in the fall, and our lawyers made monkeys out of them and threw it out of court.

Three years later when this man was attempting to organize waiters at the Flagler, he found it hard to sign up union members because a floating work force typically didn’t return the next year to the same hotel—”I had my head cracked a couple of times.”

In her memoir of hotel ownership and local life, Cissie Blumberg [LP: a close friend of my mother] notes that the town of Woodridge donated an ambulance to the Spanish Loyalists in the 1930s. She and her husband raised money for the Progressive Party’s 1948 campaign to elect Henry Wallace as President, and they organized “Farmers for Wallace” and “Women for Wallace.” In the antiwar 1960s, they ran up against roadblocks in organizing a meeting featuring Dr. Benjamin Spock when officials wouldn’t provide a public building to hold the meeting. I heard from others that Green Acres made a point of hiring blacklisted entertainers such as Zero Mostel. A son of chicken farmers told me about how his parents were active in the American Labor Party (ALP). His father ran for state assembly in 1950, and his mother spoke and leafleted, sometimes with his help—”They were part of an identifiable left-wing group in the community.” The ALP fought against the cold war mentality, racism, and anti-Semitism, and it ran candidates for local and state elections, supported the 1948 Wallace campaign, and raised support and money for the Rosenbergs. (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as “atom spies.” Widely understood as a frame-up of political activists, the Rosenberg case was a touchstone of McCarthyist repression on the one hand and progressive politics on the other.) The son adds, “One of the most memorable and important activities that I remember was organizing the black laundry workers at the Sullivan County Steam Laundry” to help them win improvements in their working conditions. One retired farmer, still living on the same farm his father started in 1904, remembers a red-baiting attempt by the local Liberal Party to defeat him when he ran for the board of the fire insurance cooperative.

When people think about leftist resorts, three names typically come to mind: Maud’s Summer Ray, Chester’s Zunbarg, and Arrowhead Lodge. At Maud’s Summer Ray in the years before World War II, most guests were leftists. Their numbers included socialists, communists, and Trotskyists, though the communists predominated, at least as measured by the sales of newspapers: the Communist Party’s Yiddish Freiheit (Freedom) was the top seller as a veteran guest of Maud’s told mc. Chester’s Zunbarg had leftist entertainers such as Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Woodie Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Leon Bibb, Ossie Davis and Rubie Dee. Moreover, W.E.B. Dubois even lectured in the Catskills.

Henry Foner speaks of working in the band at the Arrowhead Lodge, which was affiliated with the leftist Jefferson School, an adult noncredit school in New York City. Indeed, the Jefferson School handled all of the Arrowhead’s reservations and supplied political lecturers twice a week. This was very helpful all around: “For the hotel it was great because they were filled throughout the summer. For the Jefferson School it was good because they were getting a percentage of the take. For us it was good because a new crowd was coming up each week so we didn’t have to worry about repeating material.” At this time, the Rapp-Coudert Commission, a New York State forerunner of the McCarthy committee, forced the firing of about fifty teachers from city colleges and public schools. Foner remembers that:

Leonard Lyons, who was a columnist in the [New York] Post, wrote a piece in which he said, “Some of the teachers suspended from City College are forming an orchestra and they are calling it ‘Suspended Swing.” So we called our orchestra “Suspended Swing.” We printed cards and that’s how we were known—The Foner Brothers and Their Suspended Swing Orchestra.

As Foner recalls, they had a busy schedule:

While we were up there in ’47, my brother, Moe [Foner], was the education director for the Department Store Union, and he got the no-tion, based on “Pins and Needles” [a very successful musical comedy created by the ILGWU], that it was time to do another musical comedy for the unions. So Norman Franklin and I were commissioned to write “Thursdays ‘Til Nine.” So we used that summer—since we were writing material, we were able to try it out during the summer—and we wrote a full-scale musical comedy. The performers were all workers of the Department Store Union. Irving Berlin came to the opening.

Like any Catskill hotel, Arrowhead had weekly campfires, but in this case they sang union songs and Spanish Civil War songs. Though the resort was quite leftist, it still could attract talent that was not expressly political. Foner continues:

I had been teaching at Tilden High School with Sam Levinson, so we convinced the owner of Arrowhead that she should hire Sam Levinson as the MC [in 1941]. It was a very successful summer, and as a result, Sam became well known, and from that year on he began to go up to the country and to take a bungalow and go out to perform at the hotels throughout the Catskills.

Another radical hotel lasted a shorter time. The Fur Worker’s Resort, later called White Lake Lodge, started in 1949. As the education director of the Furrier’s Union, Henry Foner therefore worked at that hotel, too:

It was [union president Ben] Gold’s ambition to have a resort that the fur workers would be able to come to when they were on vacation. The best-laid plans of mice and men . . . the busiest season for fur workers is the summer, and why it didn’t occur to him I don’t know, but workers’ vacations were in the wintertime. So it became a resort for the progressive movement. Howard Fast came up regularly and would lecture.

The hotel probably lost money each season. In 1955, the Furrier’s Union merged with the Meat Cutters and they decided to stop operating the resort. It was bought and became a Jewish camp, Camp Hi-Li. But this radicalism was atypical. Harvey Jacobs’s novel, Summer on a Mountain of Spices, offers a dramatic portrayal of the loneliness of Catskill political activists in the late 1940s and 1950s, including a trip across the Hudson to Peekskill to the famous 1949 Paul Robeson concert, where the singer and his audience were stoned—while state and local police looked on with encouragement before arresting them. Paul Robeson was a frequent visitor at the Fur Worker’s Resort, and many people staying there went to Peekskill to support the concert and protect Robeson. Radical politics was a minority perspective, even in the turbulent 1960s; resorts just couldn’t provide a fertile location for this, being too busy providing entertainment that was geared to take people’s minds off such troubles. Indeed, Mountain comics frequently used social activists and hippies as a convenient butt for humor.


May 17, 2016

Was Saudi Arabia behind 9/11?

Filed under: Saudi Arabia,September 11 — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

Last month there was extensive media coverage about the still classified 28 pages of an intelligence report that reputedly establishes Saudi support for the 9/11 attack. One of the report’s co-authors is a retired Democratic Party Senator from Florida named Bob Graham who has been fighting to get the pages released. His efforts dovetail with the legal action mounted by the families of 9/11 victims to force Saudi Arabia to pay damages.

The FBI has denied any such connection, something that Graham views as a virtual cover-up since according to him the agency suppressed the results of an investigation of a Saudi family in Sarasota, Florida that revealed multiple contacts between it and the hijackers training nearby until the family fled just before 9/11.

For a number of years, this type of claim has been made by Zacarias Moussaoui, a self-described but unlikely member of the 9/11 conspiracy who is serving 6 concurrent life sentences. In an article on Graham, the NY Times refers to Moussaoui’s concurrence with Graham but without providing crucial background that might shed light on his credibility—or incredibility more accurately. In his trial, he claimed that he and shoe-bomber Richard Reid were supposed to fly an airliner into the White House on 9/11 but then later testified that he had no role in the 9/11 attacks. He said that he was being held in reserve for a future attack. Since he flunked out of flight school and was regarded by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as unreliable, it doubtful that he ever had any role to play. Psychiatrists testifying for the defense concluded that he was paranoid schizophrenic, a diagnosis that jibes with his complaint that his lawyers were plotting to kill him.

In a story about the 28 pages on CBS’s Sixty Minutes, Tim Roemer, a former Democratic Congressman from Indiana, took part in a joint interview with Graham. For the two ex-pols, the connections between Saudi government officials living in the USA and 9/11 hijackers was undeniable:

During their first days in L.A., witnesses place the two future hijackers at the King Fahd mosque in the company of Fahad al-Thumairy, a diplomat at the Saudi consulate known to hold extremist views. Later, 9/11 investigators would find him deceptive and suspicious and in 2003, he would be denied reentry to the United States for having suspected ties to terrorist activity.

Tim Roemer: This is a very interesting person in the whole 9/11 episode of who might’ve helped whom– in Los Angeles and San Diego, with two terrorists who didn’t know their way around.

Phone records show that Thumairy was also in regular contact with this man: Omar al-Bayoumi, a mysterious Saudi who became the hijackers biggest benefactor. He was a ghost employee with a no-show job at a Saudi aviation contractor outside Los Angeles while drawing a paycheck from the Saudi government.

Steve Kroft: You believe Bayoumi was a Saudi agent?

Bob Graham: Yes, and–

Steve Kroft: What makes you believe that?

Bob Graham: –well, for one thing, he’d been listed even before 9/11 in FBI files as being a Saudi agent.

On the morning of February 1, 2000, Bayoumi went to the office of the Saudi consulate where Thumairy worked. He then proceeded to have lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant on Venice Boulevard where he later claimed he just happened to make the acquaintance of the two future hijackers.

Tim Roemer: Hazmi and Mihdhar magically run into Bayoumi in a restaurant that Bayoumi claims is a coincidence and in one of the biggest cities in the United States.

Steve Kroft: And he decides to befriend them.

Tim Roemer: He decides to not only befriend them but then to help them move to San Diego and get residence.

In San Diego, Bayoumi found them a place to live in his own apartment complex, advanced them the security deposit and cosigned the lease. He even threw them a party and introduced them to other Muslims who would help the hijackers obtain government IDs and enroll in English classes and flight schools. There’s no evidence that Bayoumi or Thumairy knew what the future hijackers were up to, and it is possible that they were just trying to help fellow Muslims.

For some on the left, allegations of Saudi state-level participation in 9/11 serves as another brick in the foundation to support the notion not only of Saudi Arabia being bent on the destruction of the cornerstones of American imperialism—the WTC and the Pentagon—but American complicity in what amounts to a willful act of self-immolation. You can count on the WSWS.org to make such an argument in an article on Bob Graham:

Graham’s language is significant, since it could suggest not only official Saudi support to the hijackers during their months in the US—the focus of the “60 Minutes” report—but support to the hijackers by other individuals or other agencies, including the US government itself. It was reported after 9/11 that the lead hijacker, Mohammed Atta, was well known to the US government, and had been under surveillance during his residence in Germany before he came to the United States to get flight training.

Two other hijackers, the San Diego-based Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, were also known to the US government. The CIA had observed them participating in an al Qaeda planning meeting in 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and placed them on a “watch list” for FBI monitoring if they came to the United States. Nonetheless, under circumstances that have never been clarified, the two men were allowed to enter the United States on January 15, 2000, landing at Los Angeles International Airport, eventually going to San Diego where they attended flight training school, preparing for their role as pilots of hijacked planes on September 11, 2001.

The distance between this analysis and that of the 9/11 Truther movement can be measured in millimeters. If the USA connived to open doors for men bent on its destruction, why wouldn’t it send in operatives to prepare a planned detonation of the twin towers or fire a missile at the Pentagon? If the ruling class was so desperate to launch a new war in the Middle East based on a “false flag”, why not?

The guilt of the Saudi government has been accepted by much of the conspiracy-minded left for obvious reasons. Osama bin-Laden admitted he was behind it and 15 out of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia just like him. Isn’t that proof enough? As so many guests on the Bill Maher or Jon Stewart show used to put it, we should have invaded Saudi Arabia rather than Iraq.

If you buy into this, it is probably a good idea to gloss over the long-standing relationship between the ruling class of the USA and the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia has been staunchly opposed to radical movements in the Middle East and supportive of stability in the West, where much of its oil wealth was invested. It supported the first Gulf War and has provided an open door to the construction of American military bases. In 2010 the USA signed a 60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, not exactly consistent with reports that they might be used to destroy American assets both economic and personal.

In fact, it makes no sense at all, especially in light of al Qaeda’s hostility to the monarchy. Indeed, one of the reasons bin-Laden gave for the 9/11 attack was the presence of American troops on the land where Muhammad was born.

But an alternative interpretation begins to make sense if you look beneath the surface. Bin-Laden and the 15 hijackers might have been Saudi but their roots were in the Yemeni tribe that has been brutally oppressed by the Saudi monarchy since the early 20th century.

The Arabian Peninsula was home to two major tribes historically, the Adnan who lived in the north and became the rulers of contemporary Saudi Arabia, and the Qahtani who dwelled in the south and are now referred to as Yemenis. Bin-Laden was a Qahtani descendant as were every single one of the Saudi hijackers. Furthermore, most of the initial cadre of al Qaeda were Yemenis from the Asir region of Saudi Arabia that borders Yemen and was Qahtani homeland. Like Texas, this was a piece of foreign territory that a more powerful nationality was able to conquer and absorb.

If you have trouble with the word tribe, it is simply a synonym for the more anthropologically precise “segmentary lineage” term that is defined in Wikipedia as:

A simple, non-anthropologist’s explanation is that the close family is the smallest and closest segment, and will generally stand with each other. That family is also a part of a larger segment of more distant cousins and their families, who will stand with each other when attacked by outsiders. They are then part of larger segments with the same characteristics. Basically, if there is a conflict between brothers, it will be settled among all the brothers, and cousins will not take sides. If the conflict is between cousins, then brothers on one side will align against brothers on the other side. However, if the conflict is between a member of a tribe and a non-member, then the entire tribe including distant cousins could mobilize against the outsider and his or her allies. This tiered mobilization is traditionally expressed e.g. in the Bedouin saying: “Me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.”

In 1906 the Asiris formed a state under the leadership of Muhammad al-Idrisi, the great-grandson of a revered Sufi scholar known for his skillful debates against Wahhabists from the north. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of WWI, al-Idrisi cast his lot with the British who he hoped could guarantee the sovereignty of his people. Instead the British chose alignment with Saudi Arabia that had became a state in 1932. Did this have something to do with the fact that the north had oil and the south virtually none? Do I have to ask?

Deciding that Asir must become part of Saudi Arabia, its monarch Ibn Saud went to war and was victorious. Some historians believe that as many as 400,000 Asiris and other tribesmen died as a result of Ibn Saud’s onslaught.

Once the Asiris were brought under Riyadh’s thumb, a process of forced assimilation took place with Wahhabi beliefs being forced down the throats of people whose customs could not be more remote from the austere but mammon-worshipping norms of the north. Qahtani tribesmen wore garments that amounted to skirts, revealing much of their legs. They were known as the “flower men” and frankly could pass for people walking around Haight-Ashbury in 1969.

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As for the women, they liked to dress in colorful clothes and shunned the veil. Their elaborate headdresses were customarily bedecked with coins and jewelry.

To consolidate its grip on a people that obviously resented being forced into the Wahhabist mold, the Saudis constructed Highway 15 that would be the backbone of an economic-military presence in its newly acquired territory. It would have air bases, missile sites and garrison outposts just like the Alamo. Guess who got the job of building Highway 15. Osama bin-Laden’s father. That project and others in Saudi Arabia generated billions for the family but did little to mollify his son. Even though the Asiris appeared to have been reengineered as Wahhabi robots, they harbored resentment against American presence in the region as well as the ostentation of the Saudi ruling class. From its inception, the Qahtani tribe had preferred a simple life and tribal camaraderie. Bin-Laden might not have had flowers in his hair but there were aspects of Saudi society he found deeply objectionable, in fact far more irritating than the reputed “Western” values like Madonna videos he supposedly reviled.

In order to understand the clash between the Asiris and the royal family, as well as to help debunk the outlandish claim that top Saudi government officials were involved with 9/11, you have to read Akbar Ahmad’s “The Thistle and the Drone” that I reviewed for Critical Muslim two years ago. Ahmad lays out the social divide between the descendants of the Adnan and the Qahtani:

Muhammad [bin-Laden] had come to feel at home in Asir. He loved its tribes, its ways, its history, and its cultural ambiance. One of his favorite wives was from Asir. In turn, the tribes of Asir accepted Muhammad as one of their own. Not only was he a fellow Yemeni, but they were won over by his easy charm as he held court sitting in a large white canvas tent with brightly colored cushions and carpets covering the floor. Muhammad received tribesmen who would petition him to settle disputes or for other assistance. He had become more than a mere construction worker. He had become their sheikh. The tribes would respond with loyalty when Muhammad’s son Osama would come to them for support. Twelve of the 9/11 hijackers were from towns along Highway 15.

While the oil boom made the Saudi royal family and its supporters very rich, little was done for the people of Asir. The large, extravagantly built holiday villas owned by the Saudi elite in Asir seemed to add nothing but salt to their wounds. In 1980 the poverty-stricken province had only 535 hospital beds for a population of about 700,000. Besides, given their religious background and its emphasis on austerity, the Yemenis disapproved of the Saudis’ arrogance and vulgar displays of wealth. Poor Yemeni tribesmen desperate for work looked for jobs in the Saudi cities. Typically, they could only find employment in the military or as cooks, gardeners, or drivers. After the kingdom began to invite immigrant workers from the Philippines and India, the Yemenis could not even obtain those menial positions. Their resentment against the Saudi centers of power remained a constant undercurrent of Asir society.

Eventually the grievances against the ruling family reached a critical mass and led to open revolts. A cleric from Asir named Juhayman al-Otaybi led the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in December-January 1979 that was directed both against infidelity to Islam and the worship of riches in the country’s top echelons.

Finally, despite the emphasis on radical Islam versus the civilized world, a more plausible explanation for the violent clashes taking place around the world is not that different from that between tribes and civilization more generally. Indeed, Islam does not have to enter the picture as the British conquest of Ireland might indicate.

For Osama bin-Laden, the loyalty to Qahtani values might trump his Wahhabi beliefs. Indeed, if you take a close look at his statements around 9/11, there is a tribal element that stands out as Murad Batal al-Shishani pointed out in a March 4, 2010 Jamestown Foundation article:

A focus on tribes in Yemen has been a main reason behind al-Qaeda’s success in finding a safe haven there.  Abu Musab al-Suri, the first to see Yemen’s potential as a safe haven for the jihadist movement, has said that the main reason for considering Yemen a stronghold for jihadis is the tribal nature of its people and the solidarity between tribes. [3]. It was for similar reasons that Osama bin Laden addressed the southern tribes of Saudi Arabia in 2004, specifically in Asir province (which borders Yemen), naming the tribes and encouraging them to fight in Iraq. “Oh heroes of Asir and champions of Hashed, Madhaj, and Bakeel, do not stop your supplies to assist your brothers in the land of Mesopotamia [i.e. Iraq]. The war there is still raging and its fire spreading.” [4]

Abdul-Ilah al-Sha’e, a Yemeni journalist, confirms that al-Qaeda has succeeded in building an alliance with the tribal system in Yemen because the country has not been “tamed” or “civilized” like other countries.  Tribes are still in control and thus it was easy to build alliances with them. [5] Abdul-Illah said that al-Qaeda wanted to recruit young people who were not afraid of death and found these young people in Yemen’s tribal and Bedouin societies, where acts of revenge and battles between tribes are still dominant, given the absence of state institutions (al-Jazeera.net, January 21).


Talks from the book launch meeting for Khiyana

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:22 pm

Talks by three of the contributors to Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, which has a chapter by me as well. I still have some copies of the book that I will be happy to send you for $15, plus mailing. That will allow you to avoid dealing with the Dark Empire, ie. Amazon.com. Contact me at lnp3@panix.com for more information.

May 14, 2016

Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective

Filed under: art,literature — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

If you look at the table of contents of Tony McKenna’s brilliant collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective”, you will be struck immediately by the seemingly eclectic combination of high and popular culture with Vincent Van Gogh sitting cheek by jowl next to Tupac Shakur. This, of course, leads to an interesting question as to the merits of such a distinction. Keep in mind that Charles Dickens was basically the Stephen King of his day. Also, keep in mind that English literature only began being taught in the British university as a substitute for religion. Until then, students read Shakespeare or Henry Fielding only for entertainment as Terry Eagleton pointed out in “Literary Theory, An Introduction”:

If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’. By the mid- Victorian period, this traditionally reliable, immensely powerful ideological form was in deep trouble. It was no longer winning the hearts and minds of the masses, and under the twin impacts of scientific discovery and social change its previous unquestioned dominance was in danger of evaporating. This was particularly worrying for the Victorian ruling class, because religion is for all kinds of reasons an extremely effective form of ideological control…

Fortunately, however, another, remarkably similar discourse lay to hand: English literature. George Gordon, early Professor of English Literature at Oxford, commented in his inaugural lecture that ‘England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.’ Gordon’s words were spoken in our own century, but they find a resonance everywhere in Victorian England. It is a striking thought that had it not been for this dramatic crisis in mid-nineteenth- century ideology, we might not today have such a plentiful supply of Jane Austen casebooks and bluffer’s guides to Pound.

What is striking about Tony McKenna’s approach to both high and “low” culture is the rigor and subtlety—all conveyed within the context of Marxist dialectics. Although every article expresses this, probably the most sublime application is the final article on a comedian I had never given much thought to, especially now since he has begun doing commercials for Verizon: Ricky Gervais. The title of the article is “From Tragedy to Farce: The Comedy of Ricky Gervais as Capitalist Critique” and it is a pip. As is the case with a number of the articles in the collection, I became highly motivated to have a look at the works examined that were unknown to me, starting with “The Office” and “Extras”. In probing such works and giving them the respect they deserve, McKenna implicitly makes the case that they are the equal to most socially aware fiction being written today if not their superior.

In “The Office”, Gervais plays a character that will be familiar to you if you’ve ever worked in an office as I had for over 40 years until my retirement in 2012. As David Brent, Gervais is always spouting buzzwords like being proactive and performance orientated. I remember the first time I heard the phrase “grow the firm” back in 1981 when I was a consultant at Mobil Oil. Grow the firm? Since when does an object get attached to the verb ‘to grow’? I got used to it in the other offices I worked in over the years but remained jarred every time I saw a leftist talking about “growing the party”.

Brent uses his authority to make his underlings a captive audience for his amateur stand-up comedy, something that symbolizes “all the falseness and alienation of the corporate logic that they are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.” After Brent gets axed by the firm, a paper company called Wernham Hogg, he returns for a reunion at the office and once again does a comedy routine. For the first time, the workers laugh from the heart. (Season One of “The Office” can be seen on Amazon.com.)

I recall watching a few minutes of “Extras” on HBO but never got hooked. After reading McKenna’s analysis, I can’t wait to watch the first season on Amazon streaming (the complete series is available on DVD for $14.95). As the title implies, this is a comedy about the film and TV industries’ lower-tier. Gervais plays a character named Andy Millman who doesn’t care for his job and hopes to make it as a scriptwriter for a series he has been presenting to television executives without much success. In the same way that David Brent lords it over his subordinates, the A-Team actors Millman cohabits with are “surreal, bizarre, and sometimes even tyrannical”.

Referring to Karl Marx’s Capital, McKenna distinguishes between Millman trying to navigate between use values and commodities. The scripts represent use value to him even though he is marketing them to men who view them exclusively as commodities. Meanwhile, his crappy job as an extra represents the commodification of labor. As Marx wrote in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

Once Millman’s script is bought by the BBC, the tensions between use and exchange value become unbearable. The production team is intent on making the story more commercially viable and “audience friendly”. (One imagines that this was the kind of metamorphosis that “The Office” went through after being adopted by NBC with Steve Carrell standing in for Gervais.)

Growing more and more frustrated with the surgery being performed on his script, Millman resorts to a desperate action. At a rehearsal buffet table, Millman runs into an actor named Williamson who had been terminated from a TV show for refusing to dumb down his character. He then decides to follow his example since he was at least able to “retain his integrity”.

Once the rehearsal is ready to start again, Millman confronts the producers and insists on the show being done his way or the highway. As he is making his demands upon them, they are all startled by the sounds of a sudden loud noise near the buffet table. The now unemployed but integrity-retaining actor has attempted to stuff his jacket with food items that have just tumbled to the ground. Starkly confronted by the fate that awaits him, Millman “makes a cringing come-down and offers to meet any of his producer’s demands”. McKenna’s shrewd commentary on this scene is one that is bred by an engagement with Marxism and having endured working class realities, including years spent working as a cashier in Tesco’s, England’s Walmart.

Now, the scene is great because it does exactly what it should: it makes you snort laughter through your nose. But at the same time, it exhibits a more general truth – the power of the imperatives of exchange at the level of the modern-day writer’s or artist’s social existence and the way in which more abstract and high-minded moral principles easily evaporate in the face of those realities.

The scene with Williamson marks a turning point in the series because it is then when Millman abandons his fight for the integrity of his script and takes solace in the comforts which are provided by the commercial success of the sitcom – the wealth and fame it cultivates. But in abandoning the script’s use value to the prerogatives of exchange, Millman has in effect lost the semblance of himself – for the script was a product of his own essential nature; the void that opens in the aftermath is one he seeks to mask with the palliative of his celebrity status. This too has profound consequences for his existence in that his celebrity is something illusory, forever threatening to vanish, and the compulsion to assure it is driven by the need to make sure that he is always moving in the highest social circles, that he is forever in the papers, that he is seen at all the right restaurants and clubs.

One cannot say whether McKenna came to insights such as these if he hadn’t experienced working-class life. Too much of cultural and artistic analysis is burdened by academic baggage of the sort that you might hear at an ALA conference and—even worse—a vulgar Marxism that uses mutually exclusive ratings such as “revolutionary” or “reactionary” in the same way that film reviewers such as myself are forced to choose between “fresh” and “rotten” at the film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. At its worst, you end up with something like the atrocious Jacobin article on the recently deceased Merle Haggard that described him as “a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters.” This, of course, is the sort of thing you could have read in the Communist Party’s press in the 1930s when “Socialist Realism” reigned supreme.

As a sign of McKenna’s ability to see art and culture dialectically, he has an article on a Russian émigré author named Andrei Makine I am totally unfamiliar with. He focuses on a novel titled Brief Loves that Last Forever whose main character is obviously based on Makine himself. He is haunted by the crimes of Stalinism but has become too cynical to pin his hopes on the small and scattered Russian left that hopes to lead a new revolution that will restore the lost values of 1917. His treatment of these young people are fairly one-dimensional and the results of a rigid ideology that is widespread among an earlier generation of Soviet dissidents. While critical of the politics of the novel, McKenna embraces the psychological and dramatic qualities that are essential to all great literature just as we approach the novels of Solzhenitsyn.

Although a committed socialist, McKenna can empathize with Makine having his own bad reaction to a British leftist who told him that he was a “counter-revolutionary” at a meeting. Apparently he had run into someone who was the counterpart of the Haggard-hater at Jacobin. Ultimately, there is a relationship between the inability to understand Merle Haggard or Andrei Makine and that of failing to break out of the comfortable sect existence of most of the British and American left. It is an ability to think dialectically that not only clouds one’s vision of art and culture but to see how Syrian rebels have a just cause even if some right-winger writing for the Murdoch press praises them as well. Being able to see politics as a contradictory phenomenon in which a higher level of both theory and practice involves resolution at a higher level is a challenge that the left must meet in order to effectively fight for socialism. My strongest recommendation is to read Tony McKenna’s book as an exercise in Marxist dialectics. Not only will it help you to understand Tupac Shakur and Vincent Van Gogh better; it will arm you for the big battles we face down the road.

Like all hardcover books nowadays from commercial publishers such as Palgrave/Macmillan, Tony McKenna’s comes at a steep price. Don’t let that dissuade you. Have a visit to your local library and take out a copy. If you are in a small town where pulp fiction prevails, put in an Interlibrary Loan Request. Go ahead, if you aren’t up to that task, then you aren’t open to making a revolution which will be a lot more onerous.


May 12, 2016

Remembering Michael Ratner

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 2:33 pm

Michael Ratner, one of the most effective and respected constitutional rights attorneys in the USA and president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, died of cancer yesterday. The NY Times ran an obit that was noteworthy for its recognition of his accomplishments (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/12/us/michael-ratner-lawyer-who-won-rights-for-guantanamo-prisoners-dies-at-72.html). When a leftist gets such a tribute from a newspaper infamous for its corporate loyalties, that is a sign of his importance.

I also recommend the obit that appeared in the Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/michael-ratner-1943-2016/) by David Cole, an outstanding constitutional rights attorney in his own right. Cole’s article concluded:

In an era of globalization, Ratner adapted the tactics of the classic civil-rights lawyer to concerns about global justice. Many of his lawsuits challenged US interventions abroad, especially in Central America. He pioneered the use of the Alien Tort Statute, a law enacted in 1789, to bring human-rights claims in US courts for torture and other grave human-rights abuses. He invoked the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which permits countries to prosecute torturers wherever they are found, to pursue accountability for US torture in German, Spanish, and French courts, when US avenues were blocked. In the latter cases, he did not prevail. But as he would have put it, “We filed 100 percent on principle.”

As someone who had a brief encounter with Michael Ratner and his former wife Margaret Ratner Kunstler in 1987, I can attest to the importance of his work and more generally that of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

At the time I was the President of the Board of Tecnica, a group that recruited volunteers to work with government agencies in Nicaragua. The focus was on programmers like myself but delegations included machinists, welders, physicians, engineers and other types of skills—either blue or white-collar. When people returned from a week in Nicaragua, they frequently returned for a longer period to begin work with a government ministry, a cooperative or other entity committed to the Sandinista revolution. Those that were not placed often became activists in their community as part of a broader movement in solidarity with a revolution Reagan was trying to crush.

In April 1987 the FBI launched an offensive against Tecnica that involved interrogating returned volunteers at their workplace about our group supposedly being involved in an espionage network transferring technology from Nicaragua to Cuba and then to the USSR. The Washington Post editorialized against the harassment on May 14th:

The Washington Post
May 14, 1987, Thursday, Final Edition

Questioning Nicaragua Volunteers

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In spite of all this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning large numbers of those who have returned from volunteer stints in Nicaragua. More than two years ago, Director William Webster testified that about 100 people had already been interviewed, and the pace has apparently picked up in recent months. The FBI will not discuss the reasons for these interviews other than to say that they are related to “foreign counterintelligence investigations.” This may be so, but in justifying inquiries such as these the bureau has a particularly heavy — and thus far unmet — burden of proof to bear.

That is all the more so given the unpleasant method in which some of the most recent questioning is said to have been conducted, which has prompted a House subcommittee to look into this matter. According to some who were subjected to the process last month, agents have arrived unannounced at work places. They have gone directly to personnel managers and asked to see specific employees in connection with a national security investigation. One volunteer charges that an agent threatened to deal directly with her boss if she refused to answer questions on the spot.

Those questioned believe they are being harassed for their political beliefs and activities. They say there is no evidence that any person who has traveled to Nicaragua in support of the contras, for example, has been treated in a similar manner. Public faith in the FBI depends critically on the perception that it will not be used for political purposes. The agency and the administration both owe a full explanation.

Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica who died four years ago, came to New York to meet with Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler at Bill Kunstler’s townhouse on Gay St. in the village. I joined him to go over the ramifications of the FBI intervention. Basically the two regarded it as a form of harassment and doubted that it would lead to arrests since clearly—as the Post editorial pointed out—we were doing nothing except sending volunteers to work in Nicaragua.

That being said, it was reassuring to have their commitment to handling our legal defense in the event that things escalated. I was very impressed with Michael Ratner’s ability to put this incident into historical perspective and to make us feel as if we had powerful allies against whichever obstacles would be put in our path.

On the day after the FBI visits to personnel offices took place, I have to admit that I was spooked. This was in the Reagan era when fears of an out-of-control executive were well grounded. In building up the Center for Constitutional Rights as an asset for activists taking considerable risks in building movements considered subversive by the national security state, people like Michael Ratner, Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Bill Kunstler himself performed a yeoman service to the revolutionary movement—god bless them.


May 11, 2016

The Freedom Party in Austria: the vanguard of a global red-brown movement

Filed under: National Bolshevism — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm


Norbert Hofer: Austria’s Donald Trump

Yesterday the NY Times reported on the great strides being made by the Freedom Party in Austria, which can be described pretty much as their version of the Trump campaign. Like the USA, Austria is being riven by the politics of immigration. The head of the Social Democratic Party Werner Faymann was ousted by his comrades after he made a deal with the People’s Party over tightening border controls. This is a Christian Democrat type party that has been shifting to the right, just like the Republican Party in the USA. The Social Democrats had been in a “Grand Coalition” with them, which you can think of as a ruling party that combined Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio’s economic programs.

Pressure from the Freedom Party [FPO] forced the People’s Party to the right, especially over immigration. While Faymann was willing to go along with them, the base of the party said nothing doing. Like the ascendant Trump campaign, the Freedom Party made a spectacular leap forward in last month’s parliamentary elections. Norbert Hofer, the party’s standard-bearer, got 1/3 of the vote and will now face the Green Party’s candidate in the presidential elections. The Times summed up the reaction of left-leaning Austrians to Hofer’s success:

The Freedom Party’s nationalist and anti-Islam message seems to have struck a chord even in Vienna, with its history as the cosmopolitan former capital of the multiethnic and multilingual Austro-Hungarian Empire, and — from 1918 onward — as “Red Vienna,” where workers fought street battles to resist the rise of Nazism, in contrast to the crowds who cheered Hitler when he annexed Austria in 1938.

For some on the left, the Freedom Party is apparently not verboten. In 2010 it organized a “Color revolutions in the CIS countries and their current impact” conference that took place in Vienna at the Imperial Hotel. As it happens, the participants were in complete agreement with most of the Western left, particularly the kind of people who write for websites that rally around Bashar al-Assad. Anton Shekhovtsov reported on the gathering on his blog, which should be bookmarked by anybody fed up with the “axis of resistance” bullshit:

As it could have been expected, everybody was discussing the “terrible” nature of the colour “revolutions” in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Strache [the Freedom Party leader at that time] particularly condemned the US that had allegedly orchestrated these revolutions with the help of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and National Democratic Institute (NDI). The presence of the representatives from the “affected countries” was not surprising: Georgia (Levan Pirveli), Ukraine (Vladyslav Lukyanov) and Kyrgyzstan (Bermet Akayeva).

Now how could you possibly not agree with speakers who castigate the USAID and the NDI that was founded by Madeline Albright even if they would also like to keep Muslims from entering the country? Nobody’s perfect, after all. In fact, the Russian delegation to the conference included Boris Kagarlitsky who is regarded as one of Russia’s leading Marxists. Even if he is critical of Vladimir Putin, that does not get in the way of the Kremlin funding his think-tank. They obviously understand the value of cobbling together reds like Kagarlitsky and a brown outfit like the FPO.

Six years ago I wrote a critique of an interview that Chris Hedges conducted with Noam Chomsky that put forward the idea that the USA was going through a period similar to the Weimar Republic. Chomsky commented:

There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over. The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen.

Of course, now six years later, Chomsky would undoubtedly state that such a “charismatic” figure has arisen—the porcine sexist and immigrant-hating presidential candidate who would get the red carpet treatment at an FPO gathering.

While I don’t think that a new Nazi takeover is imminent, there are parallels with the 1920s that must be mentioned especially in the context of a red-brown alliance that is developing all across Europe and the USA

In the early 1920s, a wing of the Communist Party developed a National Bolshevism program that envisioned collaboration between the red and the brown as I pointed out in an article I wrote about fifteen years ago:

The German party was then thrown into a new crisis over the Treaty of Rapallo, a peace agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union concluded at the end of April in 1922. This treaty raised the same sort of contradictions as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. How could Communists call for the overthrow of a regime that the Russian party had just pledged to maintain peaceful relations with? Stalin resolved this contradiction in a straightforward manner. He declared that anti-fascist agitation should immediate stop. The Communist Parties of 1922 had not become degenerated and still tried to maintain a revolutionary outlook, no matter the difficulties.

Karl Radek … interpreted the Treaty of Rapallo as a go-ahead to support the German bourgeoisie against the dominant European capitalisms, especially France. Germany was forced to sign a punitive reparations agreement after WWI and was not able to satisfy the Entente powers. France then marched into the Ruhr in order to seize control of the mines and steel mills. The German capitalist class screamed bloody murder and proto-fascist armed detachments marched into the Ruhr to confront the French troops.

Radek interpreted these German right-wing counter-measures as a sign of progressive nationalism and argued that a bloc of all classes was necessary to confront Anglo-French imperialism. At the height of the anti-French armed struggle in the Ruhr, the German Communist Party took Radek’s cue and began to issue feelers to the right-wing nationalists.

On June 20, 1922 Radek went completely overboard and made a speech proposing a de facto alliance between the Communists and the Fascists. This, needless to say, was in his capacity as official Comintern representative to the German party. It was at a time when Trotsky was still in good graces in the Soviet Union. Nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow when Radek urged that the Communists commemorate the death of Albert Schlageter, a freecorps figher who died in the Ruhr and was regarded as a martyr of the right-wing, a German Timothy McVeigh so to speak. Radek’s stated that “…we believe that the great majority of nationalist minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the Workers.”

Radek’s lunacy struck a chord with the German Communist ultraleftists who went even further in their enthusiasm for the right-wing fighters. Ruth Fischer gave a speech at a gathering of right-wing students where she echoed fascist themes:

Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class, even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts…But…how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klockner?…Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the “folkish” side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.

There are tons of people around today who are the progeny of National Bolshevism. Two prime examples are Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone who are occasional writing partners. Bricmont effused over Trump on March 30, 2016:

He is the first major political figure to call for “America First” meaning non-interventionism. He not only denounces the trillions of dollars spent in wars, deplores the dead and wounded American soldiers, but also speaks of the Iraqi victims of a war launched by a Republican President. He does so to a Republican public and manages to win its support. He denounces the empire of US military bases, claiming to prefer to build schools here in the United States. He wants good relations with Russia. He observes that the militarist policies pursued for decades have caused the United States to be hated throughout the world. He calls Sarkozy a criminal who should be judged for his role in Libya. Another advantage of Trump: he is detested by the neoconservatives, who are the main architects of the present disaster.

While Johnstone gives Trump his due (“Donald Trump has made it clear he wants to end the current hysterical anti-Putin pre-war propaganda and do business with Russia … All to the good”), she is far more enthusiastic about Marine Le Pen who she described as being “basically on the left” on the occasion of the 2012 elections:

If “the right” is defined first of all by subservience to finance capital, then aside from Sarkozy, Bayrou and perhaps Joly, all the other candidates were basically on the left.  And all of them except Sarkozy would be considered far to the left of any leading politician in the United States.

This applies notably to Marine Le Pen, whose social program was designed to win working class and youth votes.

Even she stressed that the immigration problem, as she saw it, was not the fault of the immigrants themselves but of the politicians and the elite who brought them here.  The main tone of her political message was resolutely populist, attacking the “Paris elite”.  Demagogic, yes, often vague and playing fast and loose with statistics, but a model of reason compared to the utterances of the “Tea Party”.

Is there an explanation for this kind of idiocy? I would say that it boils down to a retreat from class. In the heady, expansionist cycle of capitalism of the 1980s, postmodernism took root in the left as a way of theorizing about society without bothering with the hoary grand narratives based on class. It culminated in Hardt and Negri’s ridiculous book “Empire”.

Today under far less favorable economic conditions (except for the financial bourgeoisie), there are 10,000 writers who are drawn to the Kremlin like moths to a flame. Once again, why bother with useless criteria such as class when the real battle for humanity’s survival is the capability of the BRICS nations to leapfrog over the decadent Western capitalist countries committed to the EU? If this battle involves making common cause with filth such as Trump and Le Pen, that’s the cost of building a new international red-brown movement that will reduce the strife between nations and make the world safe for oligarchs everywhere, especially the Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese  rich who own $25 million co-ops in Chelsea and shop for Hermes pocketbooks on Madison Avenue.

May 10, 2016

In the Land of the Headhunters

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 1:31 pm

Catching up on some screeners that have been piling up on my shelves for at least two years, I watched “In the Land of the Headhunters” yesterday, a film that despite its lurid title is as important to film scholars and students of American Indian history—both professional and amateur (like me)—as “Nanook of the North”.

It was made in 1914 by Edward Curtis, a famed photographer of American Indians, who recruited a cast of Kwakwaka’wakw Indians for a fictional film about love and war between rival clans set in the pre-contact era. If the name of the nation is unfamiliar to you, its handicrafts are likely not. These are the people who created the mammoth totem poles in their homeland in British Columbia as well as other striking works of art made of wood or feathers. The film is much more interesting as a display of Kwakwaka’wakw art and dance than as a narrative. While native peoples in the Pacific coast of Canada had been forcibly assimilated into white society by this point and had even adopted Anglo names like Stanley Hunt, who starred as the warrior Motana, the film is fairly scrupulous about depicting their early history authentically—mostly as a result of Curtis relying on co-director George Hunt, the brother of the star and a village elder.

Curtis is a fascinating character. At one point I had his The North American Indian on my bookshelf at home until I was forced to sell off a bunch of my books to focus on those that required immediate attention. In 1906 J.P. Morgan gave Curtis $75,000 to document native peoples photographically, a sum that would be at least $1.5 million today. This is an example of his work, a Cherokee mother and her baby:

Curtis hired Frederick Webb Hodge as a research assistant. At the time Hodge was one of the country’s top anthropologists who developed close ties with Franz Boas, a fellow scholar at Columbia University with whom he shared a commitment to understanding “primitive” peoples in relative terms, rejecting stereotypes about one race being more “civilized” than another. Despite the title of Curtis’s film, it was clear that he had absorbed Hodge’s values. Like “Nanook of the North”, this is a loving tribute to a people that were truly free and in harmony with nature. Like Robert Flaherty, Curtis veers in the direction of “noble savage” romanticism but given the racist portrait of American Indians in Hollywood films back in 1914 and for the better part of the following century, such films were badly needed.

As it happens, Boas was also a student of Kwakwaka’wakw culture and played an important indirect role in the making of “In the Land of the Headhunters”. George Hunt, Curtis’s co-director, was a consultant to Boas when he was doing field work in British Columbia. He and his brother were members of the Tinglit nation, one that shares many of the cultural norms of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, especially the totem poles. Boas taught Hunt the Kwakwaka’wakw language and he then helped to collect artifacts for display at the 1893 World’s Fair where a replica of a native village was built and where 17 members reenacted daily life in the spirit of Curtis’s film.

Unfortunately, Boas being a product of his time insisted on the Kwakwaka’wakw maintaining an appearance that they had abandoned long before 1893. This meant requiring them to wear their hair long just as was the case in Curtis’s film. In an astute commentary on Boas’s flaws, Douglas Wax, a radical anthropologist and director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame (!), pointed out how Boas ended up reinforcing social Darwinist ideology despite his “cultural relativism”:

Likewise, Boas’ Kwakiutl were performing rituals that at home were no longer practiced, and which had never been intended for the kind of display expected at the Exposition. Curtis Hinsley writes that “They were aiding Boas in his effort to recapture a presumed pristine, pre-Columbian condition” (350), a state of affairs that sat well both with Boas’ scientific predilection—later realized in his advocacy of “salvage ethnography”, the attempt to reconstruct as much as possible of a tribe’s pre-contact culture before its adherents disappeared under the onslaught of Western civilization—and the nationalist leanings of the Exposition’s directors, who wanted the ethnographic exhibitions to form a sort of “baseline” against which the modernity of Anglo-America could be measured. Ironically, in their quest for greater authenticity, the anthropologists of the Bureau of Ethnology and the Peabody often ended up inventing native culture for the natives themselves. R.H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School, later recalled of the Chicago exposition that “In some cases the ethnologists… had to show the Indians how to build and dress because none of the present generation in such tribes knew” (In Rydell 1984: 252 n. 51). The focus on the enactment of the past, coupled with the insistence that Indian culture was only “authentic” insofar as it was free from the “taint” of Western civilization, had the effect of presenting Indian culture as something static, unchanging, and doomed to disappear. There was no room in either the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the day or the germinal cultural relativism just beginning to take shape for Indian cultures that continued to exist and to adapt to the changing world around them.

None of this should dissuade you from watching “In the Land of the Headhunters” on Amazon streaming or a version sans musical background on Youtube. For only $3.99, the Amazon version is well worth it as a complete work of art as the trailer above would indicate.


May 9, 2016

Ukraine, NATO and Noam Chomsky’s deficits

Filed under: Chomsky,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm


Showing up on TomDispatch, the Guardian, Alternet, CounterPunch and ZNet just for starts is an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s new book Who Rules The World?, which is basically a variant on the same book he has been writing for 25 years or so. For example, in 2004 he came out with Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance and before that in 1992 What Uncle Sam Wants. Such books have had an enormous influence, mostly beneficial. Unfortunately, given the geopolitical orientation that serves as Chomsky’s compass, there is a tendency to adopt a Manichean understanding of world politics in which the USA symbolizes Darkness. While it is true that the USA is evil, it does not follow that those who oppose it are pure as the driven snow. Of course, an anarchist like Chomsky would never write the same kind of pro-Kremlin propaganda as a Seymour Hersh or a Patrick Cockburn, but he has come dangerously close on occasion and even wandered into their territory.

The most obvious example is Chomsky relying on the word of Cockburn about Syria who he described as “doing the best job of reporting” on ISIS. Probably like so many on the left, Chomsky is simply uninformed about the critiques of Cockburn mounted by Idrees Ahmad and others. It was Ahmad who debunked Cockburn’s characterization of the Assad dictatorship being ISIS’s main enemy. There was abundant evidence that the Baathists had worked out a nonaggression pact not long after ISIS showed up in Syria.

The excerpt does not take up Syria but it does have a section on Ukraine, another country susceptible to Manichean geopolitical reductionism. Chomsky writes:

Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand NATO to Ukraine. These plans were articulated explicitly at the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in NATO. The wording was unambiguous: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” With the “Orange Revolution” victory of pro-Western candidates in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” as a WikiLeaks report revealed.

Russia’s concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading U.S. establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. He writes that “the taproot of the current crisis [over Ukraine] is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” which Putin viewed as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.”

This passage encapsulates Chomsky’s intellectual and political deficits when it comes to the traditional Cold War narrative, especially quoting a realist like Mearsheimer. If I read something like moving “Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit”, alarm bells would go off. How in the world does an anarchist repeat the words of a shithook like Mearsheimer on Moscow’s prerogatives? By this yardstick, JFK had every right to blockade Cuba since it was traditionally in Washington’s orbit. Mearsheimer was a supporter of the first Gulf War, writing an op-ed piece in the NY Times on February 8, 1991 that concluded: “Fortunately, a quick victory will reduce losses on both sides and allow the U.S. to turn to the more difficult task of helping to construct a lasting political settlement in the region.” My suggestion is to stop treating Mearsheimer as some kind of expert witness. He is only a step above Henry Kissinger on the food chain.

Like so many on the left, Chomsky’s tendency is to find the secret telltale document that will reveal the truth about American intentions so that the scales will fall from his reader’s eyes and turn him into a resolute anti-imperialist. More often than not, the smoking gun turns up in Wikileaks as indicated above. What needs to be addressed, however, is the complex interplay of Western and Ukrainian interests with respect to NATO that are by no means as Manichean Black-and-White as Chomsky would have you believe.

Speaking of colors, a lot of the confusion arises with the Orange Revolution of 2004 that grew out of anger over the perception that the presidential elections that year had been rigged. It pitted the Western favorite Viktor Yushchenko against Viktor Yanukovych, whose initial victory was tainted by corruption, voter intimidation and outright fraud. Massive protests eventually led to a recount and Yuschenko being declared the winner.

Whatever Yuschenko or Daniel Fried favored, the fact was that NATO was not popular with the Ukrainian people—a fact that somehow gets lost in the shuffle in the millions of words written about their nation’s post-Soviet history. The Jamestown Foundation reported on a poll taken in 2008:

A recent public opinion poll on the issue, conducted by the Kyiv-based Sofia think-tank from May 7 to 14, showed that only 21.4 percent of Ukrainians are inclined to support NATO membership, and 53 percent of those polled approved of the April failure to secure a MAP [Membership Action Plan]. The poll identified the main reasons for the negative attitude to NATO membership. Most Ukrainians fear that this would spoil relations with Russia (74 percent of those polled), force them to take part in US-led wars (67 percent), exacerbate tension in society (60 percent), prompt more spending on defense (58 percent), and make Ukraine a target for terrorists (58 percent).

With so many leftists regarding the Ukrainians as an undifferentiated mass of puppets whose strings are pulled by George Soros (except in the workers’ paradises in Donetsk and Luhansk of course), this kind of information is best swept under the rug if it ever came up on their radar screen to begin with. People like Noam Chomsky, I’m afraid, only read material that reinforces their own bias.

The will of the people was obviously reflected in decisions made at the top. Despite the fact that the president of Ukraine was all in favor of a hard linkage to Washington, there was little evidence of rapid progress toward that end, nor any signs that Yanukovych, the Kremlin’s best friend, was particularly opposed to ties with NATO.

In 2006, Yanukovych became Ukraine’s Prime Minister, a post that is below that of President but that has significant political weight. He replaced Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been fired by Yuschenko for mismanaging the economy. Despite her reputation as a mortal enemy of Russia and a heroine of the Orange Revolution, she was Putin’s favorite politician in Ukraine and arrested for her part in a crooked deal that favored Russian gas exporters.

Despite his reputation as a fierce opponent of the West, Yanukovych was okay with NATO as Novye Izvestia reported on August 9, 2006:

Ukraine’s newly-appointed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, is continuing the previous government’s policy of integration into the European Union and NATO. What’s more, at the end of last week the Supreme Rada, controlled by Yanukovych, passed a resolution legalizing the presence of foreign troops in Ukraine. NATO soldiers will soon take part in three military exercises, and NATO vessels will visit Sevastopol in September.

One month later he made a speech at NATO HQ in Brussels that could have been made by Yuschenko himself, as reported by the BBC on September 21:

Today we have the intention of concentrating on deepening relationships of partnership with the Alliance on the basis of Intensified dialogue on membership and the annual goals of action plans.

Ukraine highly values the level of cooperation with NATO. We value continual support for our Euroatlantic desires, support for military reform and democratic and market transformations.

Among the foremost priorities of government activity are strengthening informational work in sphere of relations with NATO. There is not a lack of such programmes, but they need to be augmented with specific content.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, there’s a Washington Post article dated November 28, 2006 that reveals Yanukovych as a willing tool of the West—the kind of reprobate who deserved a swift kick in the pants from a bona fide anti-imperialist like Noam Chomsky:

“My goal, first, is to develop a strategic relationship between Ukraine and the United States that is predictable, effective and has a good perspective,” he said of his Washington visit, during which he will meet with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His aides are still hoping for a meeting with President Bush, however brief. According to protocol, he should meet only with the vice president, since he is not the head of state, but a presidential handshake would imply some acceptance of Yanukovych’s new incarnation.

Ever read anything about Yanukovych like this on TomDispatch, ZNet, CounterPunch, DissidentVoice, Alternet, Truthout or the Nation Magazine? I bet you didn’t.

Now some of you might think that Yanukovych was taking this tack because as Yuschenko’s subordinate he was obligated to. Was he just waiting for the day when he could reveal to the world that he was a genuine fighter for the “axis of resistance” and maybe the next best thing to Lenin today (even if he had to keep that a secret from Putin who described Lenin as Russia’s worst nightmare)?

In 2010, he would run for president against Yulia Tymoshenko, who was widely regarded by the Kremlin’s friends in the west as a mortal threat to Russia, the woman who was on the phone with Victoria Nuland about how Ukraine would become a colony of the West and who shocked the world (or at least the conspiracy-minded part of it) for advocating that the Russians be “nuked” for intervening in Ukraine against Euromaidan. As a candidate he could repudiate his sordid past, just as Donald Trump did when he spoke about making donations to politicians so as to influence legislation that would favor his businesses.

Well, once again reality defies anti-imperialist schemas as the Observer reported on January 10, 2010:

Yanukovych is understood to have angered Moscow by supporting Ukraine’s attempt to join the EU. But Tymoshenko has become the unexpected hero of the Kremlin, after tempering the anti-Russian stance that was a hallmark of her 2004 campaign and early premiership. While remaining avowedly pro-EU, she has built a pragmatic alliance with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. The two very publicly ended the drawn-out gas dispute between the two countries last winter and were credited with avoiding a repeat this year. Tymoshenko now calls the Orange Revolution “a revolution of lost opportunities”.

After winning the election, Yanukovych continued to demonstrate the trustworthiness to the West that somehow got overlooked in the analysis of Chomsky, Stephen F. Cohen, John Mearsheimer and other denizens of prestigious American academic outposts. On October 8, 2010 the BBC filed a report titled President reaffirms Ukraine’s EU bid, says ties with NATO “comfortable”. He reassured an audience of French academics and businessmen that he was on the same wavelength as them:

He reaffirmed Kiev’s bid to join the EU. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency at 0950 gmt on 8 October quoted him as saying: “I have always insisted and still insist that Ukraine will never drop either its European integration policy or its ambition to become a EU member.”

“Ukraine has the right to expect more from the EU,” Yanukovych continued. “We are not seeking to have it all and have it now, but we think that it is possible to speak today about the conclusion of an association agreement and about preparations for the introduction of visa-free travel.”

He said that, to achieve this, Ukraine was ready to do “homework” and carry out reforms.

Yanukovych also said that Ukraine was pleased with its relations with NATO, Interfax-Ukraine reported at 0906 gmt the same day.

“Relations with NATO are currently taking shape. They are comfortable for both Ukraine and NATO. They are open and honest, at least,” he said, adding that Ukraine was developing pragmatic relations with the alliance through participation in its peacekeeping missions and fight against terrorism.

Up until this point, the average Ukrainian could give less of a shit about NATO. He or she did want to be part of the EU because they saw it—rightly or wrongly—as an alternative to the kleptocracy they had been living under.

When Yanukovych was essentially blackmailed into backing away from the EU and falling in line with Russia economically and politically, the country erupted. Have doubts about whether Yanukovych was coerced? Then just consider what Fred Weir reported in the Christian Science Monitor on October 23, 2012:

President Vladimir Putin met with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych at the Russian leader’s country home Novo Ogaryovo late Monday, and declared some progress toward Mr. Putin’s goal of integrating Ukraine’s economy with Russia’s. But he gave no word addressing Mr. Yanukovych’s hope of winning a reduced price for Russian natural gas exports to his post-Soviet nation.

The meeting, though one in a routine series, illustrates that Ukraine may be gradually edging toward Russia as its other alternatives wear thin. The Ukrainian economy, which has few natural resources, has suffered badly in recent years, in part due to the deepening crisis in the European Union, in part thanks to the crippling price of Russian natural gas for its extremely inefficient industry and housing stock. Yanukovych’s insistence on prosecuting and jailing his main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has deeply alienated the EU and further complicated any chances for economic integration with the West.

“There are some reasons to think that Ukraine and Russia’s positions are drawing closer,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies.

“If we don’t develop our relations with Russia, Ukraine might be facing serious economic problems,” he adds. “Trade turnover with Europe has been falling due to the recession, and Ukraine’s government budget is in serious doubt. The only direction we can look for financial aid would be Russia. If the worst happens, and there is no money to pay pensions and other benefits, our authorities will be in trouble.”

That might ring a bell. It is just the Kremlin using its muscle on a head of state who had very little leverage. It is just the Russian version of what the Germans did to Alexi Tsipras. Once the Ukrainians got wind of this betrayal, they came out into the streets. They came out not because Victoria Nuland got on the phone with Yulia Tymoshenko or because Daniel Fried “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” If you’ve had to put up with police brutality, corruption, neglected social services, and a general sense of being a colonial subject, you too would take to the streets and raise hell. It is to the everlasting shame of the Western left that it cannot get it into its thick skull that the Syrians and Ukrainians have the same kind of aspirations as the rest of humanity, no matter what Noam Chomsky thinks.

May 8, 2016

Karl Marx rides again

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

**FILE**John Wayne appears in a scene from "True Grit," a Hal Wallis production, directed by Henry Hathaway. Wayne won his best-actor Oscar for his role in the 1969 movie. Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison, would have turned 100 on Saturday, May 26, 2007. He died at the age of 72 of stomach cancer in June of 1979 after a career that spanned more than 170 films. (AP Photo)

(From my 2014 archives)

Seemingly three or four years late in the game, Rolling Stone weighed in on the relevance of Karl Marx. In an article titled Marx Was Right: Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014, Sean McElwee told his readers that the Great Recession of 2008 confirmed Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system as “chaotic” and “crisis-prone”.

Just to make sure that nobody would accuse him of being a Commie, McElwee also points out that Marx was wrong about many things, especially failing to offer a proposal about what should replace capitalism. This lack left his writing “open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century.” Now it should be said that Marx never intended to write about the workings of socialism, not that this would have made any difference to Stalin. The horrors of the USSR have much less to do with Marx’s failure to write what he called “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” (Afterword to the 1873 edition of V. 1 of Capital) than the sheer backwardness of Czarist Russia, exacerbated by a bloody civil war.

I could not help but notice the renewal of interest in Karl Marx’s ideas just after the 2008 financial crisis began. While the Communist Manifesto is the second-best selling book in history, there was a pronounced spike in sales around that time, no doubt aided by Marx’s words that read like a prophecy: “The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.” McElwee paraphrases Marx: “Decades of deepening inequality reduced incomes, which led more and more Americans to take on debt. When there were no subprime borrows left to scheme, the whole façade fell apart, just as Marx knew it would.”

It is interesting to note that Sean McElwee does not allow his past associations with John Stossel, the Hudson Institute and Reason Magazine to prejudice him against Karl Marx, a sure sign that history is moving in the right direction. There was a time when McElwee found rightwing ideas more useful. After graduating from King’s College in New York, a school with the dubious distinction of having Dinesh D’Souza named president in 2010, McElwee’s writings tilted rightward as evidenced by his Reason article arguing that plastic garbage floating around in the oceans was not that worrisome.

After 2008 there were deep worries in the financial punditocracy. You might remember that scene in China Syndrome when the first shudders took place in the nuclear reactor. Was this going to be the “Big One”? That is how Nouriel Roubini must have felt on August 11, 2011 when he told a Wall Street Journal interviewer:

Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can self-destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That’s what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They’re not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else’s income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process.

Even more shockingly, George Magnus, an economist with the UBS investment bank, advised Bloomberg News readers to Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy just 18 days after Roubini’s interview appeared. Magnus quoted Marx’s Capital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.” But his solutions had more to do with Keynes than Marx, such as this one: “Governments and central banks could engage in direct spending on or indirect financing of national investment or infrastructure programs.” If Karl Marx confronted a crisis as deep as the one we faced in 2008, his advice would have been to nationalize the banks not use them as tools for fiscal pump-priming.

However, Umair Haque probably spoke for most of these commentators—including Sean McElwee, I imagine—when after posing the question Was Marx Right? in the Harvard Business Review he came down squarely on the side of capitalism. After giving Marx his due (“Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed”), Haque sides with McElwee on the “recipe” question: “Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but.”

It is, of course, only natural that Marx’s books get taken off the bookshelves and dusted off during a period of profound economic crisis. For that matter, a political crisis will also have the same effect. In 1967 I took the unprecedented steps of reading the Communist Manifesto after two years of facing the draft and working in Harlem as a welfare investigator. A combination of napalm bombing of peasant villages and urban rebellions against racism and poverty convinced me that a revolution was necessary and who better to consult on that matter than Karl Marx?

I made the decision at that time to join the movement founded by Leon Trotsky since his connections to Karl Marx seemed to have more of a pedigree than those of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. I failed to realize at the time that notions of pedigrees were exactly what prevented Marxism from full development.

In April 1939, just a year before his assassination, Leon Trotsky wrote Marxism in Our Time as an introduction to a new edition of Karl Marx’s V. 1 of Capital. It is of extraordinary value as a statement of the ABC’s of Marxism, as well as unwitting evidence of its unresolved contradictions.

Trotsky does not shy away from the key challenge to Marxism that I first heard in a social studies class in 1958 when the American economy was reaching new heights–what his article refers to as “the theory of increasing misery”. Our teacher said something that most of us heard in public school growing up in the USA. It goes something like this: Karl Marx was right about workers being oppressed and exploited in 1850 but he never would have dreamed about how wealthy they would become a hundred years later. Probably the first person to articulate this seemingly irrefutable point of view was Werner Sombart, the German ex-Marxist and author of Why there is no Socialism in America.

Writing in 1939, when misery was widespread throughout the capitalist world, Trotsky would seem to have had the upper hand but interestingly enough he sought to vindicate Marx’s analysis not on the basis of what existed during the depths of the Great Depression but at the height of its economic vitality: the roaring 20s. Trotsky observed that while industrial production increased by 50 per cent between 1920 and 1930, wages only rose only by 30 per cent. The workers were getting screwed in the best of times.

Like the nuclear reactor that withstood a meltdown in China Syndrome, the American economy supposedly is in recovery. Of course there are those unfortunates who cannot seem to find a job, especially in the Black community, but the stock market is at an all-time high and the housing market—according to the experts—is doing quite well. GM is showing a handsome profit even if it faces criminal charges for failing to inform owners of their cars that a faulty ignition might lead to fatal accidents.

More to the point, the NY Times of March 12, 2014 reported on economist Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that would be of little assurance to anybody except the wealthy. Piketty deploys a mountain of data to prove that economic inequality will not only persist into the future but that the system itself is the primary generator, not “vampire squids” as Matt Taibbi put it. It is the very nature of the system that leads to a concentration of wealth at the top and misery at the bottom. Timesman Eduardo Porter, not a critic of capitalism after the fashion of Nouriel Roubini, puts it bluntly:

The deep concern about the distribution of income and wealth that inspired 19th-century thinkers like David Ricardo and Karl Marx was attributed to a misunderstanding of the dynamics of growth leavened with the natural pessimism that would come from living in a time of enormous wealth and deep squalor, an era that gave us “Les Misérables” and “Oliver Twist.”

Today, of course, it’s far from obvious that the 19th-century pessimists were entirely wrong.

Glancing back across history from the present-day United States, it looks as if Kuznets’s curve swerved way off target. Wages have been depressed for years. Profits account for the largest share of national income since the 1930s. The richest 10 percent of Americans take a larger slice of the economic pie than they did in 1913, at the peak of the Gilded Age.

Recently, a trend within Marxism has emerged that argues against the importance of “immiseration” altogether. To somehow link revolution with a declining standard of living is tantamount to what they call “Catastrophism”, a word in the title of a collection of essays edited by West Coast radio host Sasha Lilley: Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

Lilley’s chapter (Great Chaos Under Heaven: Catastrophism and the Left) in the collection can be read in Google books, something I highly recommend it even if I disagree with every word. Lilley is a stimulating thinker who can at least be given credit for being forthright. While she correctly discredits the notion that the capitalist system will collapse as a result of its own contradictions (Marx instead believed that cyclical crisis was endemic to the system), she goes too far in saying that crisis itself was inimical to class consciousness and political struggle and that an expanding capitalist economy was far more propitious for the left:

With the exception of the 1930s, periods of intense working class combativeness in the United States have tended to coincide with periods of economic expansion, not contraction and crisis. The two big strike waves of the early twentieth century, from 1898 to 1904 and 1916 to 1920, took place during years of growth. These were periods in which radical workers forced employers to raise wages—by 35 percent between 1890 and 1920—and, through struggle, successfully shortened the workweek by nine hours. These strikes were fueled by relative prosperity, and industrial action fell off when the economy moved downward.

Workers struck throughout the early 1960s for that matter. This was a time when the UAW, the Teamsters, and the railway unions went out on strike for substantial wage increases all the time. During the brief time I was a public school teacher in the late 60s, Albert Shanker was one of the most “militant” trade unionists in the U.S. if going out on strike is some kind of litmus test. This was the guy after all who resulted in civilization being destroyed after he got his hands on a nuclear weapon, as the Doctor told Woody Allen in Sleeper after he awoke. That’s pretty militant but I do not think that’s the sort of thing Lilley had in mind.

But the kinds of strikes that capture Marxist’s attention are not the Samuel Gompers inspired affairs for higher wages. Instead we study what happened in Flint, Michigan in 1936 and 1937 when workers occupied factories and battled the cops and National Guard. This was a strike that began to educate workers about FDR back-stabbing the CIO. Like it and so many other major class battles of the 1930s, it eventually came to naught because the Communist or Social Democratic leadership (Victor and Walter Reuther in the case of the UAW) was determined to back FDR. If the trade union movement had broken with the Democrats and launched a labor party, American politics would look a lot different today.

In the final analysis, it is politics that is key for Marxism in our time. Accepting Piketty’s findings at face value (something made easier by the “new normal” of unemployment, stagnating wages, environmental despoliation, and decaying infrastructure), the emphasis should be on strengthening the left and challenging the rich on every single issue that divides us. Nobody can predict when and if the class struggle will reach such an advanced level that workers will become revolutionary, but the best way to move forward in that direction is by exploiting every injury and insult to those who own nothing but their labor power.

Although Marx was the first to understand the laws of motion in capitalism, it was really up to Lenin to think through what strategies were most effective. Ironically, it was lessons he learned from the German Social Democracy that helped him to formulate policies for a Czarist state that on the surface had little in common with a parliamentary democracy like Germany’s.

In “What is to be Done?”, Lenin appealed to his Russian co-thinkers to learn from the Germans:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

You have to wonder how our dogmatic Marxists of today can have so little appreciation for how the Russian social democracy operated. Could you imagine any of the 57 varieties of “Leninist” sects ever taking up the cause of a “bourgeois progressive” being denied the right to take office? Just recently, the Senate rejected Obama’s appointment of Debo Adegbile to a top civil rights post because he had participated in an appeal filed on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A powerful left party in the USA would have raised hell about this, even if the Democrats did not lift a finger.

In terms of the laws against “obscene” publications and pictures, and governmental interference in the election of professors, Lenin is amazingly prophetic when you think of Piss Christ and Ward Churchill. In many ways, capitalism is not just about whether the boss is enjoying a higher return on profits than a worker’s rise in wages since Marxism is not reducible to economic determinism. Capitalism constitutes an assault on our lives during every working moment of the day and the duty of a revolutionist is to find ways to get people to come out of their apolitical shell and take part in civil society in order to fight for greater freedoms now and total liberation after the final conflict.

But in order to become effective, Marxism has to learn how to avoid the “pedigree” trap alluded to above since size matters. Nothing prevents growth more than hairsplitting after all. To be taken seriously by working people, socialists have to get out of their isolation chambers and use ideas and language drawn from their nation’s own experience. This means first and foremost casting off the iconography of the Russian Revolution and especially terms like “communism” that would be totally misunderstood by the ordinary person even if they excite Slavoj Žižek.

In early 2010 the Gallup Poll discovered that 36 percent of Americans view socialism positively. Can you imagine if Gallup had used the word communism instead? That word might have registered more positively in the NYU sociology department but we are far more interested in what appeals to the average American.

As is most likely the case, Kshama Sawant was elected to City Council in Seattle by representing herself as a socialist rather than a communist and downplaying the dogmatic beliefs of her Trotskyist organization. Instead of making speeches about the need for a Leninist party, it was the need for a $15 minimum wage that won her volunteers and votes.

As a sign of how intoxicated the left can become when it loses track of what century it is in, the Socialist Workers Party of the USA—a group Leon Trotsky hailed as most faithful to his party-building conceptions—dismissed Sawant’s campaign as “reformist”:

Constrained to the narrow boundaries that typify capitalist election contests for local offices, her literature avoided important political issues that affect all workers, such as high unemployment and a woman’s right to choose abortion. It made no mention of key international issues, Syria, the place of the Cuban Revolution, the common interests of working people worldwide against the bosses or the global crisis of capitalism that is driving their attacks against us.

Considering that her bid was for City Council, it made eminent good sense for her not to make speeches about Syria and the Cuban Revolution (whatever that means in 2014, when the country seems poised to adopt the Chinese model).

Not long after the cops expelled the last Occupy protester out of the last public park, I had hopes that the movement could have come together and run candidates under the name of the Occupy Party. Unfortunately, the autonomist and anarchist prejudices of the key activists made this impossible. For the ordinary person, taking a leave of absence from their job in order to camp out in the bitter cold was never a realistic possibility to begin with.

Making every possible tie to the Occupy movement, the Sawant campaign became a small token of what may be possible if the American left puts aside its petty differences and began to come together in a common organization to defend the rights of working people for a livable wage as well as their freedom to go to a museum and see works like Piss Christ or photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.

We have no crystal ball that would indicate when such an organization has reached the critical mass that is necessary to lead to the explosive reaction that can transform society and usher in a new civilization based on freedom and justice but we must do everything in our power to remove all obstacles in our way, especially those put there in the name of Marxism.

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