Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2017

Pop Cinema: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm


Each year I review over 100 films with most of them being the kind that show up in art houses: leftist documentaries, foreign-language films, American indies and the like. In November, I start catching up with the films that major Hollywood studios are pushing for NYFCO awards such as “Moonlight”, “Brooklyn”, “Spotlight” and other high-minded products that are geared to college-educated, NY Times reading, PBS subscribers. It is what you might call the Merchant-Ivory trade.

But what I really love and rarely write about are the horror and action films that dominate the multiplexes, mainly because they are so crappy. For example, I can’t get enough of “Alien” type films where a plucky band of space travelers must fend off some deadly creature that is killing them off one by one. One such film titled “Life” opened this week and could only muster a 66 percent fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Generally, anything under 98 percent is usually enough to make me walk out on looking like the subject of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, so there was no point in spending $12 on a geezer ticket for a movie that the generally reliable Slant Magazine characterized: “If you ever find yourself in outer space and the only person talking any sense is Ryan Reynolds, locate the nearest escape hatch.”

Through pure serendipity, I saw five films recently that except for one might be of interest to CounterPunch readers. The four that made the cut are apolitical except for the one at the top of the list, but can at least function as escapist fare for that segment of the population that is burdened by angst over the President from Hell. If you’ve spent all week long passing out leaflets in the bitter cold (do activists do that nowadays?), you might as well treat yourself to a film in which the monsters are purely celluloid.

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Trailers for films under review:

March 30, 2017

Another Stasi film? No thanks

Filed under: Cold War,Germany,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 12:32 am

Goodbye, Lenin is available on Amazon.com

When it comes to films, there are two subject matters that have zero interest for me. One is the Holocaust and the other is the Stasi—the East German secret police. Both lend themselves to predictability both in plot and message. We know that the Jews will be killed and families scattered. We also can be sure that the Stasi will come off as fiendish enemies of freedom and human rights. So, when it comes to stick figures, nothing works better than making films about fending off Nazi Commandants or Stalinist secret police—both with lines like “Ve haf ways of making you talk.”

This afternoon I was listening to an NPR interview on the Leonard Lopate show with the husband-and-wife team that made the documentary “Karl Marx City” that is described in the heading of A.O. Scott’s NY Times review as revisiting the “Everyday Terror of Dictatorship”. The wife is the daughter of a man who after being accused of being a Stasi agent after the fall of the Wall killed himself.

Just for the heck of it I Googled “Stasi” and “film” and discovered that this is a well-trodden theme going back to 2006’s “The Lives of Others”. It is all about people living in fear of informants in a society with an abnormally high suicide rate. Although I never saw the film, it sounded like a fictional version of “Karl Marx City”.

2012 was a banner year for East German Stasi films with “The Tower” and “Barbara” getting rave reviews. Stephen Holden’s review of “The Tower” mentions that an overweight East German soldier is forced to eat feces in boot camp as a punishment. Thank goodness, East Germany is now liberated but who will now liberate the USA where a Marine drill sergeant forced a Muslim enlistee into a laundry dryer, where he suffered second degree burns?

In a NY Times profile of Christian Petzold, the director of “Barbara”, he states that he did not want Stasi operatives to be “depicted as mustache-twirling villains”. The eponymous lead character is a doctor who has been banished to the countryside for some unspecified offense, where she is snooped on by Stasi operatives. We learn from a review of the film that Petzold was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, evidence of which is “the prickles of unease that creep into his work, creating a cold climate of paranoia and an oft-justified fear of an imminent threat.” I haven’t seen this film but when it comes to prickles of unease, you can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”, where mustache-twirling villains abound.

In the Lopate interview, the subject of “Ostalgie” came up. Since East Germany has become pretty well integrated into the smoothly running German capitalist machine, there’s not much concern about “Ostalgie”, which is a neologism based on East (Ost) and Nostalgia. The couple briefly referred to its feeling among some East Germans that there were some good things about Communism, like workers not having to worry about unemployment.

I wonder if that meant much to NPR listeners, who strike me as a mixture of Upper West Side psychotherapists, liberal college students and cabinet makers. Funny how that can matter to people—the right to a job. I was only on unemployment once in my life, back in 1990 before going to work for Columbia and it was really hell on wheels. I say that as someone without a family and debts at the time. What is it like for a coal miner in West Virginia who hadn’t worked in five years, had no health insurance before Obamacare and was suffering from some debilitating illness? Would he trade his situation for that of a coal miner in East Germany who was guaranteed a job for life even if the Stasi was snooping on him?

The Wikipedia article on “The Lives of Others” mentions a film that made quite an impression on me when it first came out in 2003. It describes “Goodbye, Lenin” as a comedy, which doesn’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that is a film that honors “Ostalgie” and puts East German Communists in a light that struck me as sensitive to why many Germans became Communists, even if the project involved compromises with the revolutionary impulses that made them to join the party.

Good Bye, Lenin

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 14, 2004

It is 1989 and Communism is crumbling everywhere except in the heart and mind of Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), a middle-aged Berlin resident who has a picture of Che Guevara on her bedroom wall and is fiercely loyal to party leader Erich Honecker.

Her son Alex (Daniel Brühl, who played the schizophrenic youth in the powerful “White Sound”) and daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) are typical young Berliners. They have little use for ideology and yearn for the material goods and personal liberty of the West. Despite their differences with their mother, they love her deeply and would do anything to make her happy.

One night as Christiane is heading toward a party celebration, she happens upon a police crackdown on anti-Communist protestors, including her son who is being thrown into the back of a truck in handcuffs. This sight causes her to collapse on the street with a heart attack. She is brought to a hospital in a coma.

When Alex visits the hospital, the doctor tells him that there is no guarantee that she will ever awake from the coma. If she does, the important thing is to prevent any shocks to her psyche since another heart attack would prove fatal. For the next eight months, as Christiane lays motionless in her hospital bed, everything changes around her. The Berlin Wall collapses, the two Germanys are reunited and the East is flooded by Western companies.

Finally Christiane regains consciousness but in a weakened state. In a ploy that constitutes the dramatic tension of the film and its underlying political and social theme, Alex resolves to create an artificial environment in her bedroom back at home that is faithful to the Communist past. After elaborately preparing the bedroom with the clunky furniture and Stalinoid photos they had discarded, they spirit her from the hospital making sure that the ambulance attendants stay mum about the political sea change.

Alex, who has befriended a co-worker and aspiring video artist at a Western satellite-dish company (his former employer has gone bankrupt, like almost all “Ostie” firms), relies on him to assemble archival news programs from the Communist past that they play for Christiane on a concealed VCR. The joke is that it really doesn’t matter, since the “news” consists mainly of reports about dissatisfaction in the West with unemployment, drug addiction and other social problems.

This joke is part of an ensemble of comic situations as Alex goes to greater and greater lengths to sustain the illusion that Communism is still in power. He searches desperately for consumer goods from the past that apparently not only appeal to his mother, but to other elderly East Berliners who feel swamped by Western products that are alien to their culture. Although the word “globalization” is not mentioned once in the film, an astute member of the audience might think of the French farmer José Bové who vandalized a Macdonalds for its encroachments on native cuisine and values.

As Alex ventures out into the brave new world of capitalism, he begins to question the changes. For example, when he brings his mother’s East Germany currency to a bank to be converted into Deutschemarks, he is told that the deadline was two days earlier and that they are worthless. When he raises his voice in protest, bank guards throw him out. He calls them assholes.

In the final scene of the film, as his mother is approaching death, he stages one last ruse that summarizes the sensibility of Wolfgang Becker, the film’s director and co-author (written with Bernd Lichtenberg). After she has discovered traces of the West during an unsupervised stroll in her neighborhood (Coca-Cola signs, BMW’s, etc.), they convince her that immigrants from West Germany have recently begin flooding into the East, seeking refuge from unemployment and crime. The film’s coda consists of a televised speech by East Germany’s “new” head of state, a renowned former cosmonaut (a cab-driver recruited by Alex), who addresses the profound changes in Germany as it is reunited under socialism.

However, the speech does not consist of Stalinist jargon. Instead it is a heartfelt plea for an egalitarian society that is based on human need rather than private profit. Obviously written by Alex, it is a sign of his final reconciliation with his mother on both familial and philosophical grounds.

On January 13, 2004, the New York Times reported on the phenomenon of “Ostalgie”, a neologism that indicates nostalgia for the “East” or the Communist past, which is epitomized in a small museum in the town of Eisenhüttenstadt near the Polish border and that has gotten a boost from the popularity of “Good Bye, Lenin”. It evokes Christiane’s bedroom:

“The museum is just a few rooms, mostly on the second floor of a former day-care center, but it holds 70,000 to 80,000 objects from the former East Germany. About 10,000 people a year come to look at Mikki transistor radios, jars of Bulgarian plums, schoolbooks, plastic water glasses that never seemed to come in the right colors. Seeing these familiar objects clearly stirs warm feelings about the vanished and unrecapturable past.”

This is not just about nostalgia for chintzy objects that might be regarded as a German version of “camp”. It is also about a growing disenchantment with the new capitalist world that they had assumed would be a kind of utopia:

“Ostalgie is complicated, made up of various ingredients. One is clearly the disillusionment felt by many former Easterners over German reunification, which took place 13 years ago. Unemployment these days is commonly 25 percent in regions like Eisenhüttenstadt. Rents are no longer subsidized. Doctor visits cost money. People can be fired. In addition, as Andreas Ludwig, the West German scholar of urban history who started the museum a few years ago, noted, even capitalist products break down or are shabby and schlocky.”

It would be too much to expect the New York Times to acknowledge what is truly driving “Ostalgie”. It is the memory of Easterners that the old system guaranteed cheap rents, a job, medical care and low crime. With “globalization” turning most of the planet into an ever more ruthless competition for disappearing jobs, such a past might retain some appeal. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis search on “East Germany” and “nostalgia” returned 529 articles, many with headlines like “Wealth and freedom? No thanks, we’d rather have a Trabant” (referring to a defunct automobile).

The true story of East Germany’s birth and death could never be conveyed in a film such as this, but there are realities that never surfaced in conventional cold-war narratives. In Carolyn Eisenberg’s “Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949”, we learn that FDR intended that Germany be deindustrialized, demilitarized and–most importantly–denazified after the war, a goal shared by his partner Joseph Stalin. Then along came Harry Truman, who saw Communism as just another impediment to American hegemony. In violation of the Potsdam and Yalta agreements, Truman pushed for reindustrialization of West Germany under the Marshall Plan and the creation of a formal West German state.

Washington then abruptly ended denazification, leaving 640,000 war criminals unprosecuted, and canceled steps to break up the cartels that had provided much of Hitler’s economic and social base. Defying conventional notions of Stalin’s intractability, Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith confessed that “we really do not want nor intend to accept German unification in any terms that the Russians might agree to, even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements.”

And what did the Soviets seek? Nothing but what had already been hammered out at Yalta and Potsdam, namely $10 billion in reparations, four-power control of the Ruhr Valley and vigorous denazification and permanent demilitarization. In exchange, they would accept free elections throughout Germany modeled along the lines of the old Weimar Republic–hardly the stuff of Communist subversion.

When the West reneged on all this, the Soviets began to crack down in the East. The rest is history.

(Good Bye, Lenin is scheduled to open in NY theaters at the end of February. It was the winner of the Best European Film at the Berlin Film Festival.)


March 29, 2017

Anarchists in solidarity with the Syrian Revolution

Filed under: anarchism,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

I have big problems with the black bloc but this reminds me why I grew to admire the anarchist movement for its refusal to fall into the “Marxist” geopolitical chess game mode of thinking.

March 27, 2017

A letter to Goldman Sachs C.E.O. Lloyd Blankfein

Filed under: Goldman Sachs — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Lloyd Blankfein

Dear Mr. Blankfein,

I usually delete emails sent to me as a Goldman Sachs alumnus unread but I was curious to read your recent letter to shareholders since I suspected that it would address the large presence of past and present Goldman employees in the Trump administration, including Steve Bannon who by most accounts is serving as Rasputin to Trump’s Czar Nicholas.

I really have no idea who the typical Goldman  shareholder is but I suspect most of them would be okay with Bannon being exposed as a serial killer if the value of their stock increased handsomely in the next quarter, as I am sure it will with a White House having such incestuous relations with your firm.

You put the best possible spin for your second-in-command becoming one of Trump’s top economic advisers:

This past December, then–U.S. President-elect Donald Trump appointed Gary Cohn, then our president and chief operating officer, director of the National Economic Council. Gary was responsible for developing and leading many of the firm’s most important initiatives, and demonstrated a deep commitment to our clients, our people and the culture of Goldman Sachs.

We have been criticized for the fact that some of our colleagues, after long careers at the firm, have moved to work in the public sector. The charge is that Goldman Sachs is able to extract certain advantages that others cannot. In fact, the opposite is true. Those in government bend over backward to avoid any perception of favoritism.

This, of course, is nonsense. Cohn was hired by Trump to gut financial regulations, including Dodd-Frank that was Obama’s weak-tea answer to Wall Street greed and criminality. To illustrate what a con job the Democrats were involved with in “taming Wall Street”, mogul banker Anthony Scaramucci, who was a fundraiser for Obama and then joined Cohn as a Trump economic adviser, has compared a regulation that required investment firms to act in the best interest of their clients to the Dred Scott decision. That’s almost as crazy as Stephen Schwarzman comparing Obama’s proposal to increase taxation on “carried interest” profits to Hitler invading Poland. Did working on Wall Street make these people crazy or were they crazy to begin with?

To reassure your shareholders that you are not complete knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing Breitbart.com reactionaries, you point out that you have joined the tech industry in opposing Trump’s Islamophobic immigration bans. While nobody would gainsay the right of Microsoft or Goldman Sachs to hire a top software engineer or investment banker from Somalia or Yemen, I doubt that there’s much of a pool of such talent to begin with.

Once you penetrate through other bromides about how Goldman Sachs is the next best thing to the Catholic Workers, you get to the statement that is what they call the takeaway:

Putting aside one’s individual politics, the outcome of the U.S. election raises the possibility of more stimulative tax and regulatory policies, as well as plans for more infrastructure spending. This represents a substantial change in direction for the U.S., and offers many investors and companies a reason for optimism.

A reason for optimism? My god, are you are out of your mind, Mr. Blankfein? Scientists have concluded that climate change is threatening a sixth extinction. You really need to read Naomi Klein or even watch Al Gore’s documentary. By seeing everything through the cash nexus, you are losing the thread.

In 2012, Forbes reported that despite a $50 billion loss, Hurricane Sandy that some scientists link to climate change may end up being “beneficial” for the American economy according to Goldman Sachs. Why? Because, among other things, it will be good for the construction industry that will be rebuilding flooded away houses. This is like saying WWII was a good thing because it allowed American investors to reap huge profits from rebuilding Japan and Germany.

In terms of stimulative tax policies (ie., cuts), the result will be another step in the direction of “starving the beast”, as Grover Norquist put it. Back in 2015, Norquist stated that Trump’s tax plan was consistent with his Taxpayer Protection Pledge. As should be obvious from Trump’s proposed budget, just about everything except the military and police will lose funding. Among the hardest hit victim be the Department of Education, which is facing a 14 percent cut as opposed to the military that is getting a 10 percent raise.

It is through the Department of Education that students receive Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid. Don’t you understand that the U.S. needs an educated work force to support medical research, technological innovation including robotics and other missions critical to the functioning of a capitalist economy including a fresh supply of managers loyal to your values?

We’ve certainly come a long way from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 that established land-grant universities that established the flagship universities such as the U. of Wisconsin and U. of California, Berkeley. That Trump’s ally Scott Walker, who does not have a college degree, has laid siege to the U. of Wisconsin and that Trump himself has threatened a cut in funding to Berkeley for its stance on protecting undocumented immigrant students should give you some idea of how little interest the “stimulative” White House has in defending the long-term interests of American capitalism.

Furthermore, the assault on environmental standards will only lead to an outbreak of illnesses caused by toxins in the water we drink and the air we breathe. The EPA’s new chief Scott Pruitt has a long record of opposing environmental regulations. Not only is he a climate change denialist; he dissolved the Oklahoma Environmental Protection Unit after becoming the state’s Attorney General in 2014. He also sued the EPA to block its Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States rule. Aren’t you aware that your children and your grandchildren are vulnerable to illnesses caused by pollutants? Since you have been stricken with lymphoma, I’d think you’d be up in arms over a corporate pollution defender like Pruitt looking after our interests. The U. of California at Irvine conducted a study that linked heavy air pollution in a Canadian area with cancer spikes. They found that the number of men with leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma spiked in areas closer to heavy pollution. Is a “stimulative” economy worth all that?

One of the questions I have discussed with leftist friends over the years is why billionaires like yourself have so little interest apparently in the long-term prospects of capitalism. I’ve said in these chats that if I were a hedge fund billionaire, I’d not be able to sleep at night worrying over the threats to future profits posed by an environmental crisis that is being fueled by short-term profit seeking. You seem to symbolize this conundrum more than any member of the capitalist class I can think of. Your inability to understand and act on this speeding, out-of-control locomotive filled with a pandora’s box of ills, including nuclear weapons, has one benefit, I guess. It will prove so alarming that many young people will make the decision I made in 1967 when the war in Vietnam was out-of-control: to become a socialist and change the system in order to prevent a catastrophe not of our making.

Yours truly,

Louis N. Proyect (Goldman Sachs 1987-1990)

March 25, 2017

The Romance of American Communism

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 2:53 pm

In many respects the term New Left that emerged in the 1960s meant a rejection of the Communist Party, which was the paradigm of the Old Left. Despite the fact that Maoism and Trotskyism were also “old”, young people were much more open to such groups because of their rejection of both the troubled legacy of the USSR and their embrace of a militancy the CP regarded as “ultraleft”. There were also attempts by many New Left leaders in the mid-60s to build upon new theoretical foundations drawing from post-Marxists like Herbert Marcuse or anarchists such as Paul Goodman. When “Leninism” became fashionable, the New Left fell by the wayside.

Despite the lack of interest in the Communist Party as it then existed, young scholars influenced by the New Left embarked on a scholarly project to see CP history in context, not just as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy—although they accepted this reality—but as authentically rooted in American society. Among the most notable were Maurice Isserman who wrote “Which Side Were You On” in 1982 and Mark Naison who wrote “Communists in Harlem During the Depression” a year later. When Naison was a student at Columbia University in 1968, he worked closely with SDS and could be relied upon to speak against the Vietnam War and the planned expansion that encroached on a Harlem park. Meanwhile Isserman was an SDS member at Reed College but dropped out of school after the Kent State shootings.

The whole point of the “revisionist” scholarship was to show that party membership was contradictory. While tacitly or openly supporting retrograde Kremlin policies such as the Moscow trials, the rank-and-file were key participants and often leaders of momentous struggles in the labor and civil rights movements.

The new thinking about the CP clearly had an influence on films such as the 1982 “Seeing Red” that consisted of interviews with veteran members of the party like West Coast leader Dorothy Healy. Two years later “The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War” was released. Both films included interviews with Bill Bailey, a long-time CP member who was famous for tearing down the swastika flag from the bow of the Bremen that was docked in New York in 1935.

Nearly all the CP’ers who appeared in the documentaries had remained on the left even though many had broken with Stalinism, especially Dorothy Healy who would be instrumental in the launching of the Committees of Correspondence, a Eurocommunist split from the CP. They acknowledged the bureaucratic practices but never repudiated genuinely radical acts such as tearing down a swastika, helping to organize a trade union, or fighting against Jim Crow.

Published in 1974, Vivian Gornick’s “The Romance of American Communism” falls squarely within this “revisionist” tendency and is a counterpart to such films. The book is basically a collection of interviews with ex-CPers across the entire USA woven together in a New Journalism style that was popular at the time.

As a red diaper baby born in 1935, Gornick was much more a feminist activist than a student radical. Her goal in writing such a book was to allow ex-CP’ers to tell their stories, warts and all. Obviously determined to make their political work seem rooted in the American experience and not a virtual spy network as argued by the current crop of anti-Communists such as Harvey Klehr, she interviewed people who to a large degree never repudiated their past life even though they readily admitted that they were dogmatic, manipulative and frequently unethical.

When I first read Gornick’s book in the early 1980s, not too long after dropping out of the Socialist Workers Party, I was struck by how similar their experiences were to my own especially “going into industry”, a rite of passage that had the ultimate effect of destroying American Trotskyism.

Interviewing one former member who had joined the industrial proletariat, Gornick reveals a malaise similar to that expressed to me by many ex-SWP’ers. In conversations with Gornick, one Karl Millens revealed a profound alienation during his own “colonizing” venture:

What can I tell you about the years in industry? They were, for me, slow, imperceptible, pointless death. I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for which I had no physical facility. Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be ready to move when a radically pregnant situation arose. Well, I was never close to the men and no situation arose, at least none I would ever know how to move into. I discovered very quickly I had no talent—repeat none—for organizing, for unionizing, for negotiating. I was slow-witted, clumsy on the uptake, half the time I didn’t know what the hell was going on around me.

That being said, other veterans of the trade union implantation had an enormous feeling of camaraderie and accomplishment, especially if they were involved in the key battles in auto, steel or textile. Unfortunately for young radicals in the Trotskyist or Maoist movement, the 1970s were nothing like the 1930s so alienation prevailed even if they were loath to admit it. In both the CP and the rival “Marxist-Leninist” movements, there is a stubborn refusal to admit that the party is ever wrong. When the party line comes into conflict with reality, reality is the first to be bent.

In reading “The Romance of American Communism” a second time to prepare this review, I was struck by some serious problems that were undoubtedly dictated by the New Journalism approach. To begin with, there are obvious signs that Gornick embellished the words of her interviewees to make them sound much more like characters in a novel. For example, a female ex-CP’er recollects living on the Upper West Side using words that struck me as something out of a romance novel:

I remember the other women were wearing magnificent dresses, embroidered and bejeweled. Mady was wearing only a simple white satin blouse and a long black skirt with no ornamentation whatever. She picked up one of the roses, sniffed deeply at it, held it against her face. Then she walked over to a mirror and held the rose against her white blouse. Immediately, the entire look of her plain costume was altered; the rose transferred its color to Mady’s face, brightening her eyes. Suddenly, she looked lovely, and young again.

But more egregiously, Gornick chose to use made-up names for all her interviewees even when there was no need to protect them from public scrutiny such as a man she describes as the CP’s lead defense attorney in Smith Act cases. By changing the names “to protect the innocent” (the book does not even include a disclaimer to this effect), she made it impossible to carry out scholarly research. You have to have some familiarity with CP history to identity the individual she is speaking to.

For example, having read Carl Marzani’s “The Education of a Reluctant Radical”, a five volume (!) memoir published by Monthly Review, I recognized him as the person Gornick refers to as Eric Lanzetti. Her interview with him epitomized the contradictions of life in the CP. As she puts it: “Inevitably, if one wishes to illustrate what that Communist Party wholeness in its detailed dailiness was once like, one is drawn to a man like Eric Lanzetti.

Marzani/Lanzetti was the son of an Italian socialist who came to the US in 1914 over fears that fascism would come to his country. The father, who had been a civil servant in Italy, became a miner and Marzani grew up in a West Virginia coal town. The hard life of miners was a principal factor in turning him into a revolutionary.

As an exceptionally gifted student, he got a scholarship to Brown University where few sons of miners would end up. After graduating, he went to Oxford on a scholarship and on his way there in 1936, he thought he would stop off in Spain to see what was going on. It was there that he was politicized for life. He became a Communist because it was the best way to help avert the fascism he saw coming.

In the fall of 1941 the party gave him the green light to join the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA. Bill Donovan, the OSS chief, told Marzani that if he was a Communist, he did not want to know about it. This, of course, was par for the course before the Cold War began. Once the Cold War kicked in, everything changed. Marzani was the first CP’er to be sent to prison, in this instance being charged with “defrauding” the government about his party membership.

Gornick goes into considerable depth about Marzani’s work as a CP section head in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This discussion as well as much of her recounting of what other CP’ers did is invaluable to scholars and activists trying to come to terms with an important part of our legacy. It is unfortunate that she made follow-up all the more difficult to carry out by employing New Journalism techniques. However, if New Journalism is purported to reveal deeper truths than the mere facts, Vivian Gornick succeeded admirably.


March 24, 2017

What Caused the Holodomor?

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm


Mark Tauger: famines are caused by nature, not colonialism

COUNTERPUNCH, March 24, 2017

Three weeks ago, Grover Furr charged me with spreading fascist propaganda on CounterPunch because my film review of “Bitter Harvest” held Josef Stalin accountable for the famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. Like the Australian theology professor Roland Boer who blogs at “Stalin’s Moustache”, Furr’s political life revolves around celebrating Stalin’s greatest achievements—such as they were. I advise my readers, especially younger ones, to visit “Stalin’s Moustache” and Furr’s website to get a handle on a school of thought that has largely died a natural death.

Instead of answering Furr’s attack, I will turn my attention to the historiography of Mark Tauger who he describes in a prefatory note as being a “world authority” on the famine. Since Tauger blames a severe drought for the deaths of between 2.5 to 7 million Ukrainians, it is understandable why he would be hoisted on the shoulders of both Grover Furr and Roger Annis, a Canadian leftist and occasional CounterPunch contributor who endorsed Tauger on his “New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond” website as “One of the world’s leading scholars on the development of agriculture in the Soviet Union”. So, you get the picture. If you are in the business of representing Ukraine as a victim of Stalinist or Putinist colonial brutality, Tauger is essential for turning that victim into a criminal.

Continue reading

March 22, 2017

A follow-up on the Enlightenment

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Was Franz Boas an “early intellectual debunker” of pseudo-science? Not exactly

When I check the WordPress dashboard of my blog each day, I am always curious to see who has linked to the Unrepentant Marxist. A couple of days ago, I discovered that Ross Wolfe had linked to my blog as part of his response to the Jacobin article by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that made an amalgam between anti-Semitism and anti-Enlightenment philosophy, whose exponents ranged from William James to Martin Heidegger in scattergun fashion. For Frim and Fluss (what evocative Hobbit-like names), Marx was part of the “Enlightenment” tradition and once philosophers such as Nietzsche began to criticize that tradition, it opened a Pandora’s Box that led to fascism.

Much of Wolfe’s commentary is couched in the sort of language found in the grad school milieu of the Platypus club that expelled him for some reason a few years ago: “Even Ideologiekritik ought to be grounded in something more solid than Foucauldean discourse analysis or Derridean textual marginalia.” My mind tends to wander when I read this sort of thing.

I raced forward to see what Wolfe had to say about my article. Here it was:

Fluss and Frim are doubtless right that the Enlightenment is presently under attack by a host of both antimodernist and postmodernist ideologues, some even purporting to be from the Left (like the “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect, who’s relinquished his previous support for Sokal in order to better crusade against the dastardly Vivek Chibber). A brilliant rebuttal to Proyect’s tendentious quotation of Kant’s anthropology, as well as the still more banal survey of Diderot, Voltaire, Holbach, Kant, and Hegel conducted over at Suburban Idiocies, is once again presented by Goldner: “Polling Enlightenment figures for their views on slavery and race is… is an extremely limited approach to the question, susceptible to the worst kind of anachronism. What was remarkable about the Enlightenment, in a world context, was not that some of its distinguished figures supported slavery and white supremacy but that significant numbers of them opposed both. Slavery as an institution flourished in the colorblind sixteenth-century Mediterranean slave pool. None of the participating societies, Christian or Muslim, European, Turkish, Arab or African, ever questioned it.”

I might try to defend myself against the charge of being an “antimodernist” if I knew what that meant. How does one take a position on “modernity”? Does that mean being a Luddite or wearing clothing made of hemp? Or using a typewriter instead of a Macbook? I really have no idea. In terms of me being a “postmodernist ideologue”, this makes about as much sense as describing someone like Jim Blaut a “postmodernist” because he would have polemicized against Chibber or anybody else espousing Political Marxism.

Goldner is never at a loss for words. The article cited by Wolfe contains 17,000 of them and there’s not much point in replying, even if I had the time. I am interested in the final paragraph, which is the real takeaway:

For many of these post-Enlightenment developments, the Enlightenment itself is of course not to be blamed. Many Social Darwinists, eugenicists, suffragettes, Progressives and socialists ca. 1900 undoubtedly identified with the Enlightenment and thought their ideas of “science”, including “scientific” demonstration of the innate inferiority of peoples of color, were an extension of the Enlightenment project, and the preceding discussion shows they in fact had their Enlightenment predecessors. Nevertheless, the early intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science, such as Boas, were also heirs to the Enlightenment. When the Enlightenment is remembered today, it is not Bernier, Buffon and Blumenbach who first come to mind, but rather Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Kant (as philosopher, not as anthropologist)  and Paine, and one could do worse than to summarize their legacy as the debunking of mystification. The Enlightenment contributed to the Western theory of race, and the real separation of culture from biology was the work of post-Enlightenment figures such as Marx, and above all the real historical movement of the past century. Nevertheless, when the Enlightenment is attacked today by Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Hindu fundamentalists for separating religion and state, or by the new biologism of the New Right or the Afrocentrists for its universalism, or by the post-modernists as an ideology of and for “white European males”, it is the best of the Enlightenment, the “Liberté- Egalité- Fraternité” of the Parisian and Haitian masses in 1794, and the best post-Enlightenment heirs such as Marx, which are the real targets.  Such attacks remind us that, once critique is separated from the limitations of the Enlightenment outlined here, there is plenty of mystification still to be debunked.

The problem with all this is that falls within the purview of the history of ideas, which is exactly what I thought was a mistake. If Heidegger was a symbol of the consequences of anti-Enlightenment thinking, how do you explain his influence on his two students Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas who could never be confused with the alt-right that Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss were amalgamating with anti-Enlightenment thought?

Perhaps Goldner was not familiar enough with Franz Boas when he cited him as one of the “intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science”. If you’ve spent any time studying the relationship between anthropologists and native peoples, you’d be hesitant to endorse him.

While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Only 8 months after their arrival, four of the six Eskimos had died of tuberculosis. One returned to Greenland and the last, a young boy named Minik who was the son of Qisuk, one of the deceased, remained in the custody of William Wallace, the Superintendent of the Museum. When Minik learned that tribal customs required the bones of ancestors be interred in their homeland, he was convinced by Boas and Wallace that a burial of the bones in New York City would suffice. When he reached the age of 15, he learned that Boas and Wallace had lied to him. The skeleton was being warehoused in the Museum’s basement, alongside hundreds of other bones that belonged to indigenous peoples. In “Skull Wars,” a book focused on the Kennewick man controversy, David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, recounts Boas’s flippant attitude toward the entire affair:

Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.”

Minik’s lifelong struggle to retrieve his father’s skeleton and return them to his native soil has been documented in Ken Harper’s “Give Me My Father’s Body: The Story of Minik, the New York Eskimo.” A review of this book by Rhode Island College professor Russell A. Potter includes this observation on the cold-blooded “scientific” stance of Boas and Alfred Kroeber, a student of Boas’s who became famous for his writings on “Ishi”, the last hunter-gatherer in California.

They were brought to a damp basement room, and as might have been foreseen, most of them soon came down with tuberculosis, against which they had little resistance. Studied, even as they were dying, by some of the most prominent anthropologists of the day, including Franz Boas (also remembered as Zora Neale Hurston’s thesis advisor) and Alfred Kroeber (“discoverer” of Ishi and father of science-fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin), their last days were spent in agonizing pain without benefit of meaningful medical attention.

Considering that Franz Boas was one of the foremost critics of racial doctrines in the US, one must surely wonder about the nature of such a social science. I think the key to understanding this kind of tunnel vision is unequal power relationships. No matter how enlightened the scientist, there is a built-in imbalance in the way that one side is doing the studying and the other side is being studied. This imbalance rests on economic inequality. “Primitive” peoples simply lack the capital to fund scientific expeditions of the sort that Boas thought useful. Historical laws of capital accumulation made it impossible for Eskimos to send ships to countries like the United States to retrieve specimens to be studied in Greenland or Alaska. Fundamentally, anthropology rests on imperialist inequality no matter the good intentions of the scholars involved.


March 21, 2017

Robert Silvers, a Founding Editor of New York Review of Books, Dies at 87

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

Robert Silvers

From the NY Times obituary:

Robert B. Silvers, a founder of The New York Review of Books, which under his editorship became one of the premier intellectual journals in the United States, a showcase for extended, thoughtful essays on literature and politics by eminent writers, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

Rea S. Hederman, the publisher of The Review, confirmed the death.

The New York Review, founded in 1963, was born with a mission — to raise the standards of book reviewing and literary discussion in the United States and nurture a hybrid form of politico-cultural essay. Mr. Silvers brought to its pages a self-effacing, almost priestly sense of devotion that ultimately made him indistinguishable from the publication he edited, and it from him.

He shared editorial duties with Barbara Epstein until her death in 2006, but it was Mr. Silvers who came to embody The Review’s mystique, despite, or perhaps because of, his insistence on remaining a behind-the-scenes presence, loath to grant interviews or make public appearances.

“I put my name on the paper, and the rest I don’t care to be known,” he told Philip Nobile, the author of “Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and The New York Review of Books” (1974). In a 2008 interview for the online program Thoughtcast, Mr. Silvers said: “The editor is a middleman. The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”

Continue reading

My take on the NY Review of Books from May 21, 2004:

In the winter of 1962-63, during a strike of the NY Times, Robert Silvers and a few close friends decided to launch the New York Review of Books, which is considered the premier intellectual print journal outside of academia.

When I first joined the SWP in 1967, I was a regular reader of the New York Review. Once when I was sitting at party headquarters thumbing through its pages, an old-timer named Harry Ring raised an eyebrow and said, “Oh, you’re reading the social democratic press.” Of course, I practically took the magazine out and burned it after hearing that. As I began shamefacedly apologizing for reading it, Harry reassured me that if he had the time, he’d read it too since it is important to keep track of the social democracy. These words were hardly reassuring. Did I have so much time on my hands because I was one of those half-digested petty-bourgeois elements that James P. Cannon railed against during the Shachtman-Burnham fight?

This is not to say that the New York Review of 1967 was something like the rancid Dissent Magazine of today. It regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and even ran a famous article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that “morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.” This was accompanied by do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail on its cover.

Like nearly everything else that was going on in the 1980s and 90s, the NY Review of Books began a steady shift to the right. To a large extent, this was a function of the growing commercial success of the magazine. It also reflected a general malaise of New Yorkers that something was deeply wrong with their beloved city, which was under siege from homeless beggars, crack-inspired violence and other threats to a perfect urban tableau lifted from the latest Woody Allen movie.

So instead of printing articles on the need for armed struggle, they ran countless articles by Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker/philosopher who was the George Soros of his day. Anxiously warning his upscale readers about the crisis of the system, his recommendations included the need for a more enlightened management in politics and a willingness on the part of the masses to accept austerity. During this period, Rohatyn was a frequent guest at a salon run by Robert Silvers and his literary and academic pals.

Around this time, novelist William Styron said, “I don’t regard it any longer as a journal with a specific point of view.” John Leonard, editor of The New York Times Book Review during the early 1970s and a respectable liberal, said, “I don’t think anyone would describe it as left-wing politically.” Citing The New York Review’s preference for such contributors as Felix Rohatyn on economic issues and Stanley Hoffman on foreign policy topics, Leonard commented, “It’s a lot closer to Commentary than it is to The Nation.” (The Washington Post, October 27, 1988)

The magazine became just the place for intellectuals to write an open letter about the treatment of some writer in a Communist dungeon, but not the sort of place to read a truly trenchant analysis of what was wrong with American capitalism. It was also a kind of command center for the wars in the Balkans with Tim Judah writing a flood of articles defending plucky Bosnian Muslims against murdering Serb hordes.

Considering this background, I was somewhat startled (but not too much so) to discover the magazine championed in the latest Nation by a chap named Scott Sherman. Titled “The Rebirth of the NYRB“, it advises the reader that the magazine is once again “a powerful and combative actor on the political scene.” Why? It seems that it published the resignation letter of Brady Kiesling, a career US diplomat, which stated among other things that: “Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson…. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.”

I don’t know how to quite break it to comrade Sherman, but at this stage of the game just about everybody in the USA except Bush, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Rumsfeld are beginning to feel exactly the same way. This morning, the 80 year old publisher of “USA Today”, a bland periodical that defends US interests nearly blindly, called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. As Willy Loman said just before his suicide, “The woods are burning.”

Sherman is cheered by Bard professor Ian Buruma’s scathing review of Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism,” a liberal call for war on Wahhabism. Perhaps Sherman did not grasp that Buruma might have seen Berman as competition in a field that he was carving out for himself. Buruma’s own “The Origins of Occidentalism” makes practically the same arguments as Berman’s, although ostensibly with less pomposity. I suppose anything is an improvement over the wretched Paul Berman, but hardly worth crowing about in the Nation Magazine.

In trying to explain the New York Review’s alleged shift to the left, Sherman calls upon Mark Danner, another Bard College public intellectual and frequent contributor to the magazine after graduating from Harvard in the early 1980s. According to Sherman, Danner “has recently produced some searching essays in the Review about Iraq”.

Just like “plastic” was a key word in “The Graduate”, Danner has a one word explanation for the New York Review’s return to the barricades: “Vietnam.” Danner is quoted as saying that, “If you look back over the Review’s history, you’ll find that periods of crisis bring out the best editorial instincts of the leadership of The New York Review. It certainly happened with Vietnam and Iran/contra. It gets the juices flowing.”

Characteristically, what Sherman fails to see is that despite all the “searching” in Danner’s articles, he remains a supporter of the war as should be clear from a recent New York Review article:

“President Bush’s audacious project in Iraq was always going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, but without political steadfastness and resilience, it had no chance to succeed. This autumn in Baghdad, a ruthless insurgency, growing but still in its infancy, has managed to make the President retreat from his project, and has worked, with growing success, to divide Iraqis from the Americans who claim to govern them. These insurgents cannot win, but by seizing on Washington’s mistakes and working relentlessly to widen the fault lines in occupied Iraq, they threaten to prevent what President Bush sent the US military to achieve: a stable, democratic, and peaceful Iraq, at the heart of a stable and democratic Middle East.”

I supposed beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this just strikes me as apologetics for the same old shit.

My take on the NY Review of Books coverage of Syria:

Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.

Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:

The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.

As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.

On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:

While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.

Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.

Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:

[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.

Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.

While Glass could never be considered a world-class intellectual, NY Review regular David Bromwich occupies a rather lofty perch at Yale University, where he is Sterling Professor of English. A Sterling Professorship is the highest academic rank at Yale, awarded to the elite’s elite. It has nothing to do with silver but is named after John William Sterling who graduated in 1864 and founded the white shoe New York law firm Shearman & Sterling. He bequeathed a ten-million-dollar endowment to feather the nest of superstar academics like Bromwich, who combines an academic career with less than stellar analyses of current events.

Bromwich wrote an article for the NY Review on June 20th 2013 titled “Stay out of Syria!” It was a collection of pro-Ba‘athist talking points.

While directed against NY Times editor Bill Keller’s urging that the US conduct an Iraq-style invasion, a position that was likely to offend the sensibilities of the NY Review’s readers and even more likely to never happen, Bromwich slid easily into slander against those who were forced to take up arms against a vicious dictatorship.

Our Sterling Professor takes the word of ‘qualified investigator’ Carla Del Ponte, a UN commissioner who denied the Ba‘athists had deployed sarin: ‘This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.’ This is the very same Del Ponte investigated for prosecutorial misconduct for her role in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia wars as the Guardian reported on August 18th 2010:

“Some of the witnesses had referred to pressure and intimidation to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution,” said a statement from the judge in the Seselj case. “The prosecution allegedly obtained statements illegally, by threatening, intimidating and/or buying [witnesses] off.”

One Serbian witness said he was offered a well-paid job in the US in return for testimony favourable to the prosecution.

Bromwich makes sure to mention the crazed rebel who took a bite out of a dead Syrian soldier’s heart. Among those whose goal it is to make al-Assad seem reasonable by comparison, this singular act of a shell-shocked fighter has taken on iconic proportions. We must conclude that in our Yale professor’s moral calculus, the act of firing rockets originally intended to pulverize battleships or hydroelectric dams into tenement buildings is a normal way of conducting warfare, analogous perhaps to prizefighting.

The NYRB occupies a unique space in American belles lettres. Through its pages academics can address a broad audience about important matters on a weekly basis. It was launched by Robert Silvers and a few close friends during a strike at the New York Times in the winter of 1962-63. Previously Silvers held editorial posts at the Paris Review and Harper’s. As the Vietnam War and student radicalization penetrated American consciousness, the magazine regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and even ran an article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that ‘morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.’ This was accompanied by a do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail.

As Silvers and his staff grew older and wealthier, and as the 1960s radicalization faded, the magazine, with American liberalism, shifted toward the center – no longer a sounding board for the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party but just another voice recognizing the inevitability of Clinton-style neoliberalism.

If Silvers ever feels the need to defend himself against charges that the magazine is giving backhanded support to al-Assad, he points to the occasional article decrying rights violations in Syria, such as Annie Sparrow’s February 20th 2014 piece on the polio epidemic she describes as a ‘a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war—a war crime of truly epidemic proportions.’ While nobody would gainsay the need for such articles, they are undermined by mendacious reporting of Glass and Bromwich which almost makes the case for the crimes of ‘truly epidemic proportions’.

The editors are reflecting the foreign policy imperatives of the Obama administration, which decided long ago that the preservation of Ba‘athist rule served American interests. Elite opinion is very sensitive to America’s role as hegemon, the first line of defense for liberal civilization. Just as it once decided that this meant holding the line against Communism, it now sees Islamic extremism as the first enemy.

For all the hysteria over looming American intervention in Syria, if it does come it’s more likely to strike jihadist elements of the rebel forces than the dictatorship. On March 13th 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

‘Extremists’ might be interpreted to encompass every fighter not conforming to the Obama administration’s definition of “moderate”, almost certainly including those who cry “Allahu Akbar” on destroying a regime helicopter.

March 20, 2017

Where did I come from? The Khazar hypothesis

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

When I was in high school, I always assumed that I was a Sephardic Jew since my last name was the same as the Spanish word for project (el proyecto). It was only years later that I discovered in a book of Jewish surnames put together by Czarist scribes that is available at the YIVO library in NYC (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Yiddish Scientific Institute) that the name was Yiddish for the counting house of a tax farmer, prevalent in the Slutsk district of Byelorussia in the 1860s.

A tax farmer was a court Jew historically, someone authorized to collect taxes for a monarch or other landed gentry for a percentage of the take. When I read Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question” shortly after joining the SWP, I was persuaded that my ancestors were like those described in the book—people who carried out financial transactions that were banned by the church. When a Christian banking class began to emerge in the late middle ages, the old-line Jewish bankers and tax collectors et al were banished from Spain, England and elsewhere. They headed east to Poland and Russia, where feudalism persisted. From various accounts, I have learned that the most vicious pogroms of the 19th century were carried out against tax collectors on estates owned by the Russian and Polish aristocracy who had little contact with the serfs they exploited.

The only alternative history of the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews is based on Khazaria, a Jewish kingdom that existed from 800 to 1000 AD. The most famous account of the kingdom is found in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” that I read when it came out in 1976. Based on scholarship that the Jewish establishment, particularly those identifying with the Zionist project, dismissed as nonsense, the book argues that a Turkic-speaking nomadic people decided to adopt Judaism as a way of establishing an ethnic/religious identity that would serve as a firewall against Christianity to the West and Islam to the East.

Up until recently, I assumed that Khazaria was in the eastern regions of Turkey that they call Anatolia. But I was quite surprised that the kingdom was north of the Black Sea (Turkey lies to the south of the sea) in a geographical region largely occupied by Ukraine.

This I learned from reading in Paul Magocsi’s fascinating 894-page “A History of Ukraine”. In the chapter titled “The Slavs and the Khazars”, Magocsi describes the Jewish state as a place where the pagan Slavic peoples began to flourish under a regime that provided a stable, peaceful and tolerant environment for different faiths in the same manner that North African Muslim states around the same time provided a haven for Jews. Magocsi writes:

Living within the protective shadow of the Pax Khazaria, the Slavic tribes on Ukrainian lands were spared for a while the worst nomadic invasions from the east, and, as a result, between the seventh and ninth centuries they were able to expand their agricultural and trading activities. But despite such protection, some Slavic princes began to resent their vassal-like relationship to the Khazar rulers. For the longest time, however, the Slavs were not united, and no individual tribe had the strength to confront the Khazar Kaganate. Building up the necessary strength became a possibility only in the mid-ninth century, with a new development in the region of Kiev. This development combined local forces with a group of leaders from Scandinavia — the Varangians — and the result was the eventual consolidation of a new power known as Rus’. How did this new phenomenon arise? Or, to cite the opening passage of the Primary Chronicle, the most famous discussion of the subject, what was “the origin of the land of Rus’, [and of] the first princes of Kiev, and from what source did the land of Rus’ have its beginning?”

It was up to Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to assemble an army to break the power of the Khazars and begin the process of creating a Christian empire over the territory once ruled by the Jews. Vladimir was a scion of the Viking royalty who had expanded their influence eastward over the nomadic Slavic tribes and the rest is history.

After reading Magocsi’s account, I decided to have a look at Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” that was published by Verso in 2009. As you might glean from the title, Sand rejects the notion that the Jews who came to live in Israel as part of the Zionist colonizing project had little biological ties to those who lived in Palestine in the time of Jesus. In a nutshell, he believes that the Khazar Jews continued to live in the same way as they always had but under Christian rule. You might ask yourself how they ended up speaking Yiddish, a language with obviously close relations to German. He says that this is a result of some German Jewish inflow into the area. Since the educated elites from Germany were socially superior to the native Jewish population, their language and liturgy eventually became hegemonic. I doubt if any of this will ever be resolved short of an exhaustive archaeological project that few Jewish scholars—mostly in sympathy with Zionist ideology—would bother to undertake. It is better to continue with the old time legends and myths about the Red Sea being parted, etc.

While most Ashkenazy Jews like Golda Meier or David Ben-Gurion would likely not make such a claim, it was doubtful that any of them would acknowledge being descendants of the Khazars who were Turkic converts to a faith that had one foot in traditional Jewish liturgy and the other in an alien culture that persists to this day, if you look carefully for it. Rejecting implicitly Abram Leon’s thesis that the Jews of Eastern Europe had fled from France, Germany and England, Sand writes:

At the center of the Jewish townlet stood the synagogue, with a double dome reminiscent of the Eastern pagoda. Jewish dress in Eastern Europe did not resemble that of the Jews of France or Germany. The yarmulke—also derived from a Turkic word—and the fur hat worn over it were more reminiscent of the people of the Caucasus and the horsemen of the steppes than of Talmudic scholars from Mainz or merchants from Worms. These garments, like the long silk caftan worn chiefly on the Sabbath, differed from clothing worn by the Belorussian or Ukrainian peasants. But any mention these features and others—from food to humor, from clothing to chants, connected to the specific cultural morphology of their daily life and their tory—scarcely interested the scholars who were occupied in inventing the eternal history of the “people of Israel.” They could not come to terms with the troublesome fact that there had never been a Jewish people’s culture, but only popular Yiddish culture that resembled the cultures of their neighbors much more than it did those of the Jewish communities of Western Europe or North Africa.

I was intrigued by the reference to yarmulke being derived from the Turkish. Wikipedia states that the word probably from the Turkish yağmurluk (“rainwear”), though it could also be from Medieval Latin almutia (“hood, cowl”).

In terms of the fur hat, that is probably a reference to the shtreimel worn by Satmar Hasidim. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is of Crimean Tatar origin, which is consistent with Sand’s account of how many Khazaris ended up in Crimea.

A Jew in a shtreimel

One of the more interesting discussions of the Khazarites can be found in “A History of the Jews”, written by Ilan Halevi who was a high-ranking Jewish member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His discussion of the linguistic affinities between the long-gone Jewish state and other ethnicities is intriguing:

Some of these groups, however, took control, for considerable lengths of time, major communication centres, establishing around them short-quasi-states which entered into contact with the neighbouring empires in complex relationships of clientage and suzerainty, essentially on the imperial need for human barriers against the main body of the wave. For both Byzantium and Persia, the Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab tribes had played this role of frontier guards against the tribes of the desert. It was against this background that there appeared, in the 6th century, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea, the kingdom of the Khazars. Originally the term “Khazar” did not describe a particular ethnic group: it was a sort generic name for all the Turco-Mongol peoples on the move in this region. It seems that the word itself derives from a Turkish root meaning “nomad” in which case it would be a Turkish equivalent of the Arabic bedu (Bedouin) describing, within a multi-tribal language, not an ethno-linguistic group, but a sociological category, the occupation and way of life of whole populations and even, at the extreme, a value system based on the specifity of this mode of organization. Thus, the Khazars were called Kaissak in the Urals, and Kazakh on the borders of China and Afghanistan where the Russian revolution would establish Kazakhstan; from their name would come the name of the Cossacks and the English word “Hussar”. But the Turcoman peoples of the Volga and the Caspian or the Crimea, whose own ethnic names were the Kalmyks and the Khirghiz, the Uzbeks and the Bashkirs, the Tatars called Tartars and many others, were, at the time of which we are speaking, Khazars on every criterion.

The only other linguistic item worth mentioning is that the king of the Khazars was called the Kagan. That’s the same name of the Supreme Court justice as well as many other Jews living in Brooklyn and elsewhere. If there was any justice in the world, the Zionists should have stayed out of the Middle East and come to Brooklyn instead—the real homeland of the Jews.


March 17, 2017

Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,journalism — louisproyect @ 3:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, March 17, 2017

Scialabba for the Defense

Four years ago I reviewed George Scialabba’s For the Republic: Political Essays in CounterPunch and am pleased to now review his latest collection Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015, whose title is borrowed from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, a poem written on the eve of WWII:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Although the book stops a year before Donald Trump’s election, there is no better way to understand this low, dishonest president than by reading Scialabba’s take on those who paved the way for him, especially Ronald Reagan. While I certainly understand how surprised some Americans are by Donald Trump’s awfulness, as if he was some sort of historical deus ex machina, I cannot escape a sense of déjà vu as if the years 1981-1989 were being replayed. Are we being forced to endure horrible reactionary presidents for all of eternity like Bill Murray enduring Groundhog’s Day? God help us.

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