Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 14, 2017

Tickling Giants

Filed under: Egypt,Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

In March 2011, a heart surgeon named Bassem Youssef living in Cairo was inspired to produce Youtube videos in which he provided satirical commentary on the Mubarak dictatorship that rapidly grew viral, so much so that he landed a weekly TV show titled “The Show” that enjoyed the same kind of popularity. He had an audience of 30 million people, while Jon Stewart’s show, which Youssef openly credits as his inspiration, never reached more than 2 million.

His meteoric rise and his demise under General al-Sisi’s dictatorship are documented in a film titled “Tickling Giants” that opens today at the IFC in NY and a number of other cities a week later (check http://ticklinggiants.com/ for venues.) It is directed by Sara Taksler, a senior producer for “The Jon Stewart Show” who decided to make a documentary about Youssef after he made a guest appearance there in June 2012.

When you see excerpts from Youssef’s show, the influence of Jon Stewart is unmistakable. From the body language of the host, his grimaces, to the mocking of the high and mighty, you are reminded that comedy is universal.

As amusing as the film is, it has a deadly serious mission, which is to demonstrate how the hopes of Tahrir Square were dashed by both the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi and the military coup that toppled it.

Youssef reached 30 million viewers because his show articulated the yearnings of the Egyptian people for freedom of expression, an end to military or clerical authoritarianism and the sort of crony capitalism that pervades the entire region. Despite his obviously secular identity, Youssef was beloved by observant Muslims of the lower classes who felt victimized by the nation’s one-percent.

Like most Egyptians, Youssef and his staff were jubilant over Mubarak’s resignation but felt short-changed by the election of Morsi, whose attempts at consolidating an Islamic state in the style of Erdogan’s AKP were a clear violation of the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring. When Youssef began mocking Morsi, who is a tempting target, there was widespread support.

The election of Generaal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was greeted in the same gloves off spirit. It made no difference to Youssef who was the head of state. If the regime continued to operate in the same fashion as Mubarak but with cosmetic changes, he would go for the jugular. What he didn’t anticipate was the degree to which a fanatical reactionary base could be assembled to agitate against his show and the partnership it formed with the media establishment in Egypt that viewed him as a threat to the el-Sisi regime. The ruling class had decided to clamp down on civil liberties and Bassem Youssef was unacceptable for his alleged insults to the army and to the Egyptian nation.

While watching this extremely compelling documentary, I could not help but think of President Trump who is drawing from the same bag of tricks as al-Sisi but with a lot less license to kill. Two hundred and thirty years of bourgeois democracy creates institutions that are much more deeply rooted than what exists in Egypt.

In November 2016, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the first head of state in the Arab world to congratulate Trump on his electoral victory to the dismay of those Egyptians who used to be loyal fans of Bassem Youssef’s “The Show”. For Trump, al-Sisi was a “fantastic guy” whose coup against the Muslim Brotherhood was praiseworthy: “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.”

According to Juan Cole, the dictator al-Sisi got on the phone with Bashar al-Assad after his meeting with Trump to gloat over the green light he got from the White House to crush “the terrorists”. With Trump cementing ties to Netanyahu, al-Sisi and Assad, it continues to amaze me that anybody on the left can continue to maintain illusions about him being an alternative to Hillary Clinton.

With Assad firmly in control of much of Syria today, it is easy to give in to a sense of futility. In the press notes, Youssef is asked to comment about the feeling Egyptians might have about the Arab Spring being a failure. His response is one that should be considered by those succumbing to the same sort of feelings:

Nothing is stagnant. We live in a very dynamic world and things change all the time. Four years ago, we never thought that we, in Egypt, would get rid of a dictator and start this kind of a political and cultural revolution, but it suddenly happened. And who could have imagined me, a doctor, of all people, becoming this media star? Unimaginable. You never know what will happen. We are living now in a much faster era. In the Middle East, we have a huge younger generation that is more connected. Oppressive governments can’t control the internet like they could with television networks and newspapers. They can’t rule people with the same methods that were employed on their parents in 1950s and ‘60s – outdated, obsolete kind of propaganda that people will not buy into it for the rest of their lives.

I am optimistic. I don’t think the revolution is dead. It’s just sleeping for now. When will people wake up again? I don’t know. Maybe in my lifetime. Maybe my daughter will carry on “The Show, Part Two.” She is very feisty and she’s much funnier than me and she’s only three years old. So she has a lot of time to practice.


March 13, 2017

Enlightenment values? No thanks

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

“The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.”

An article on the Jacobin website titled “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia” by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss tries to explain how Reza Jorjani, a fellow PhD graduate of the State University of Stony Brook philosophy department, turned into a leader of the alt-right. Jorjani sounds like a real piece of work:

Jorjani’s writings, political activities, speeches, and media appearances have drawn charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia. In one instance, he suggested that Yahweh and Allah were actually space aliens who enslaved their believers and tricked them into committing genocide. He has openly characterized certain high-ranking Nazi officials as akin to supermen with psychic powers. While Jorjani has vehemently denied the charges of bigotry leveled against him, his public statements do make you wonder.

What caught my eye was how inconsistent at first blush his rightwing politics were with Stony Brook’s department:

Stony Brook’s philosophy department, famous for its pluralism and progressive politics, seems like an unlikely context for this scandal. Many of the department’s students and professors identify themselves as leftists and liberals. Their focus on Continental philosophy includes research on critical theory, feminism, post-colonialism, and queer and critical-race theories. It came as a great shock, then, that one of Stony Brook’s newest alums had become the self-appointed spokesperson for “Aryan Imperium.”

It seems that it was the department’s opposition to “Enlightenment values” that explains this one graduate’s cryptofascist beliefs. “While it seems surprising that someone like Jorjani would come out of a self-consciously progressive department, suspicion of Enlightenment rationalism has become endemic to liberal philosophy programs like the one at Stony Brook.” They argue:

By mid-century, an impatient and demoralized Left increasingly threw the Enlightenment baby out with the bourgeois bathwater.

Thinkers blamed universalism, determinism, and what appeared as a deadening mechanical worldview for the mass slaughter of two world wars, the atrocities of the Holocaust, the horror of the atomic bomb, and the misery of industrial capitalism.

Thus began what Georg Lukàcs called the marrying of “Left ethics with Right Epistemology,” a project that tried to derive progressive politics and notions like freedom, equality, and solidarity from a more traditional view of existence akin to the Counter-Enlightenment. Understanding trends in today’s academic Left requires recognizing this crucial shift.

Much of this contemporary thought reinstates an enchanted view of the world that is inherently pluralistic. Drawing on figures like Nietzsche and Heidegger, Left thinkers learned to be suspicious of the rationality that once belonged to them.

To cap it off, they credit Vivek Chibber for fighting a bloody but unbowed struggle against this viral anti-Enlightenment infection that has made it difficult for Marxists like him and presumably other professors writing for Jacobin like Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss to get a hearing. Yes, Lyotard and Baudrillard not only crowded them out but also paved the way for Reza Jorjani.

This does not exactly map to my own experience. Like Stony Brook, the New School graduate philosophy department was one of the few places in the USA where the Continental thinkers were dominant. I was there primarily to avoid the draft but did appreciate taking classes with men like Hans Jonas, who was very close to Hannah Arendt and was featured as a character in her biopic. I also studied with Aaron Gurwitsch, who was the world’s leading authority on Husserl.

Since Jorjani is described as a virtual disciple of Heidegger, it is worth considering some connections between my ostensibly anti-Enlightenment professors and the German author of the existentialist classic “Being and Time” as well as some openly Nazi tracts.

Heidegger dedicated “Being and Time” to Edmund Husserl, a Jew who he served as personal assistant from 1920 to 1923. While Husserl’s emphasis was on resolving the contradictions of Cartesian dualism within the framework of epistemology, he had an enormous influence on 20th century existentialism. Not only did his theory of intentionality reverberate in Heidegger’s writings; he was also a major influence on Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, two Communists.

Jonas’s relationship to Heidegger was even more complicated. In 1966 Jonas’s “Phenomenon of Life” was published, a work considered by many to be as important to the emergence of Green politics as anything written by Rudolf Bahro. It is widely recognized that Heidegger was a major influence on Jonas, who was his student alongside Hannah Arendt, also under his sway intellectually as well as his lover.

Heidegger supervised Jonas’s dissertation, while Husserl served as his adviser. For some, the Green values espoused in “Phenomenon of Life” were probably a worrisome sign that there has always been a dark undercurrent to ecological philosophy. Since much of Heidegger’s philosophy reflects a disenchantment with technology and industrial society, it is inevitable that some would make an amalgam between Heidegger, Nazism and the reactionary impulses that supposedly drive deep ecology.

Martin Durkin, called the Michael Moore of the right, connected the dots in a blog post titled “NAZI GREENS – An Inconvenient History”:

Heidegger argues against the ‘monstrous’ building of hydroelectric dams on the Rhine and sings the praises of wind power: ‘modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.  But does not this hold true for the old windmill as well?  No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock the energy from the air currents in order to store it.’

Durkin even manages to concur with Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that this toxic brew of nature worship and Hitlerism has everything to do with a rejection of Enlightenment values. He argues that the Nazis were forerunners of today’s Green movement and Heidegger was its prophet. A “rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of the Enlightenment and its humanist values” was at the core of National Socialism that motivated men to “turn on the gas taps at Auschwitz”.

Although I never took the idea seriously that Heidegger’s philosophy led to Nazism, I had the same reaction to “anti-Enlightenment” intellectual trends twenty years ago when Alan Sokal’s hoax seemed tantamount to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg. Fed up as I was at the time with Judith Butler’s unreadable prose and the notion that Marxism was guilty of imposing an oppressive “metanarrative” on social movements, I was ready to hoist Sokal on my shoulders. He was certainly skinny enough. In “Fashionable Nonsense”, a book co-authored with Jean Bricmont, Sokal sounds almost identical to Frim and Fluss:

Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, “postmodernism”: an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a “narration”, a “myth” or a social construction among many others.

While there is little doubt that the Enlightenment was an improvement over the stranglehold that the Church had over feudal society, I don’t find much basis for counting Marx as an enlightenment thinker. To start with, most scholars would regard him as a post-Hegelian alongside Feuerbach, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

As I stated earlier, Aaron Gurwitsch considered Husserl to be the first philosopher to have transcended the dualism/monism dialectic that had begun with Descartes and reached a kind of climax with Immanuel Kant. Everything after Kant, including Hegel, reflected an impasse that could not resolve the mind-matter conundrum that was triggered by Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” within conventional philosophical methodology. Kant’s categories supposedly created a synthesis of the ego and the surrounding, and for some unknowable, world.

If Kant is the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought, Marx somehow missed the point. In “German Ideology”, he was rudely dismissive of what he considered to be a bourgeois moralist:

The state of affairs in Germany at the end of the last century is fully reflected in Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”. While the French bourgeoisie, by means of the most colossal revolution that history has ever known, was achieving domination and conquering the Continent of Europe, while the already politically emancipated English bourgeoisie was revolutionising industry and subjugating India politically, and all the rest of the world commercially, the impotent German burghers did not get any further than “good will”. Kant was satisfied with “good will” alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond. Kant’s good will fully corresponds to the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common, national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. These petty, local interests had as their counterpart, on the one hand, the truly local and provincial narrow-mindedness of the German burghers and, on the other hand, their cosmopolitan swollen-headedness.

In fact, the great Enlightenment that started with Descartes and came to a climax with Kant was pretty much a reflection of the state of bourgeois society at a given time. Probably the only good thing to come out of the Enlightenment was French materialism, a current that Marx paid tribute to in his early “The Holy Family”. For Marx, it “clearly expressed struggle against the metaphysics of the seventeenth century, and against all metaphysics, in particular that of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz.” So, unlike Frim and Fluss who eulogize Spinoza as the virtual anti-Trump whose “universalism entailed that governments exercise tolerance toward minority communities and grant them political emancipation as citizens without requiring them to shed their particular religious and cultural identities”, Marx would have certainly considered him a banal moralist like Kant.

Speaking of Kant, I am not sure that he holds up well as a member of our Enlightenment values club considering what he wrote in his 1764 “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”:

The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. [David] Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. The religion of fetishes so wide-spread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.

Yeah, so beautiful and sublime. I doubt that any words that came out of Heidegger’s mouth in a university classroom were as racist as this. Furthermore, if Reza Jorjani had been properly educated in Enlightenment values rather than relying on its critics, I doubt that it would have made much difference. After all, every Christian soldier who went on colonizing missions to tame the savages of Africa probably read the Sermon on the Mount before boarding a British or French ship. A lot of good that did.

My point is this. The history of ideas is a poor guide to understanding how someone like Reza Jorjani crops up. Or Ricardo Duchesne, the former PEN-L subscriber and tenured sociologist who started off as a critic of Robert Brenner just like Vivek Chibber and now is a leader of the Canadian alt-right.

It is a waste of time to blame Nietzsche for Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx for Stalin. Ideologues are reacting to pressures generated by the two main classes in society. In a time of crisis, such as has existed since the early 1970s, they are like the leaves on a tree fluttering as the winds of an approaching major storm. Some are blown to the right, others to the left. Our worry should be less with the ideologues than how to make a connection with the social class that can finally put ethics on a material basis, namely an end to the class system that generates greed, racism, homophobia, nativism and other forms of barbaric behavior. But to put an end to barbarism, it is necessary to transform the social system that feeds it. That is the task facing humanity as it hurdles toward oblivion.

March 10, 2017

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2017

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 2:20 pm

Monday, March 13th is opening night for the Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York, an annual event I have been covering since 2014. Featuring both narrative and documentary films, it is the quintessential alternative to the sort of escapism embodied in Hollywood blockbuster films and especially relevant in the current period, when the president of the United States is mounting an assault on the humane and progressive values expressed in the festival’s offerings. As you will see, the three films I have had a chance to preview amount to a rebuttal of the racist, xenophobic, corporatist and warmongering Trump administration.

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs

This is a documentary about Eugene V. Debs made by Yale Strom, whose earlier work I first came across fourteen years ago. This was a witty and wise film titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” that told the story of Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomist republic of the USSR.

Like that film, “American Socialist” is a vastly entertaining and politically insightful look at what might appear to be another somewhat Utopian experiment, namely the overthrow of American capitalism under the leadership of the most charismatic socialist politician in American history whose name and reputation cropped up in the 2016 primaries during his admirer Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Indeed, Sanders directed his own much more modest 28-minute Debs documentary in 1979 that was made before he became a Democrat. While nobody could doubt that Sanders was preferable to Clinton or Trump, Debs was very clear about the two capitalist parties in a 1904 campaign speech: “The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.”

Although I am familiar with Debs’s speeches, I knew very little about his life and career, which “American Socialist” provides in detail. We learn that his parents were a major influence on him politically. His father used to read French social protest novels to him as a youngster. The young Debs was especially fond of “Les Miserables”.

As is the case with most people who become socialists, Debs did not spring out of his mother’s womb with fully developed ideas about class conflict. Indeed, as a young man with a sympathy for the working class, he still mistakenly took the side of the railroad bosses in the epochal strike of 1877 when he was 22 years old.

Becoming more familiar with the one-sided war on labor as he grew older, especially by the railroad bosses, Debs became a co-founder of the American Railway Union in 1893, one of the first industrial unions in the USA. A year later, the union led a strike against Pullman, the sleeping car manufacturer whose workers lived in Pullman, Illinois—a hyper-exploitative company town founded by someone shameless enough to name it after himself. When George Pullman decided to maintain the price of rent after he had lowered the wages of 4,000 workers, they went out on strike. The strike took on political dimensions as the government falsely claimed that it impeded the delivery of mail and had to be crushed. In a way, it was the airline controllers strike of its day but on a much higher level. 80 workers were killed in confrontations with the police and army.

Using the technique pioneered by Ken Burns but with much more political acumen, Yale Strom draws upon photos of the battling Pullman strikers that really capture the intensity of the struggle. As a popular leader of the strikers, Debs was well on his way to becoming the tribune of the entire working class.

Drawing upon interviews with leftwing labor historians, including Nick Salvatore—the author of a Debs biography, Strom documents the remarkable geographical reach of both the IWW and the Socialist Party that Debs helped build. Debs was a contributor to “Appeal to Reason”, a socialist magazine that had a circulation of over a half-million at its height. The magazine’s offices were in Girard, Kansas, a place we would now associate with Trump voters. Indeed, the IWW and the SP reached the most oppressed members of the working class (fruit pickers, longshoremen, miners, lumberjacks) in the boondocks. Oklahoma, a state most liberals would consider particularly retrograde, was fertile territory for the radical left at the turn of the 20th century.

Debs had an affinity for ordinary workers, who listened spellbound to his speeches even when they didn’t understand many of the words. We see a photo of Debs leaning forward characteristically from a platform speaking to adoring Polish factory workers with only a smattering of English.

My own grandfather, who I was named after, was chairman of the Socialist Party in my home town as well as head of the Workman’s Circle, a leftist benevolent society for Jewish workers. At the time, socialism was a massively popular movement as indicated by the six percent vote Debs received in the 1912 election.

While the exact social and economic conditions that led to the popularity of the Socialist Party cannot be repeated in an epoch of financialization and runaway shops, the sense of unfairness that led to such a massive Debs vote exists today. If Debs was up on a cloud in socialist heaven, I am sure he would be gladdened by the sight of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters, whose activists are seen marching down the streets in Strom’s film. History does not repeat itself but we are certainly moving toward a showdown with the beast that Debs spoke against in a 1900 speech after the fashion of a biblical prophet:

The working class must get rid of the whole brood of masters and exploiters, and put themselves in possession and control of the means of production, that they may have steady employment without consulting a capitalist employer, large or small, and that they may get the wealth their labor produces, all of it, and enjoy with their families the fruits of their industry in comfortable and happy homes, abundant and wholesome food, proper clothing and all other things necessary to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is therefore a question not of “reform,’ the mask of fraud, but of revolution. The capitalist system must be overthrown, class-rule abolished and wage-slavery supplanted by the coöperative industry.


If Eugene V. Debs is the model for the kind of political movement against Trumpism we need today, this documentary about a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon is the perfect squelch of his racist attacks on immigrants fleeing state terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.

This film deserves the widest distribution and I hope that its screening at SR 2017 will help catapult it into other venues like nation-wide theatrical distribution. Director Lucas Jedrzejak, a man of Polish descent now living in Great Britain, puts a spotlight on the valiant efforts of Lebanese businessman and landowner Ali Tafesh who created a refugee camp in Ketermaya that was home to more Syrian refugees in 2015 than the entire USA—and that was when a Nobel Peace Prize winner was in the White House not a screaming Islamophobe.

Jedrzejak’s film focuses on the camp’s children, many of whom are orphans. Despite the hardships of living in Spartan conditions, the occupants of what can be described as huts are intent on living as much of a normal life as possible. Wise beyond their years, the childrens’ life revolves around playing in a makeshift playground and going to a one-room schoolhouse. One of the teachers is a star in the film, a 13-year old hijab-wearing girl named Nijmeh who should go on speaking tour of the USA about Syrian refugee realities. She is deeply aware of her responsibility to teach the ABC’s to children half her age as well as to keep their morale up. We see her leading a group of them in what looks a bit like ring-around-the-rosie that they delight in. When we learn that most of them have been exposed to aerial bombardment from Assad and his Russian gangster confederates, we can understand that they are glad to be alive even if they lack videogames and large-screen TVs.

For most of them, the deepest hope is to return to Syria—not to go to Europe or the USA. They are mature enough to understand that this is impossible under Bashar al-Assad who has destroyed their lives and those of millions of their countrymen. They long for normalcy, a chance to be among fellow Syrians in their homeland where they can play, go to school and enjoy family celebrations. It is one of the great crimes of the 21st century that their lives have been turned upside down in a war on ordinary people fraudulently called a war on terrorism.

Lucas Jedrzejak’s film is both inspiring and politically necessary in a time of growing demonization of Muslim peoples. If the USA is not quite ready to accept a fascist dictatorship, you can certainly say that people like Steve Bannon have found a scapegoat to put at the would-be fascist’s disposal. Like the Jews of the 1930s, the people of Ketermaya are desperately in need of solidarity. “Ketermaya” is an important statement on their behalf as well as millions of others fleeing persecution.

The Toxic Circle

Watch trailer here

Just over a year ago, I offered an analysis of Donald Trump that differed from many on the left who compared him to Hitler or Mussolini. I thought that the more apt comparison was with Silvio Berlusconi, the demagogic authoritarian but democratically elected Prime Minister of Italy during whose 12 years of rule the laws were bent in favor of the rich. Everything took place through “free elections” even though the Italian one-percent could rely on the mafia, the cops, the courts and the elected officials of Berlusconi’s Forza Italian party to circumvent the law.

This is what happened in Campania, a region in Southwest Italy, just above the boot. Directed by Wilfried Koomen, who is based in the Netherlands, “The Toxic Circle” is an examination of toxic dumping in the countryside of Campania that has become the Naples mafia’s biggest cash cow, even more than the drug trade. Known as the Camorra, the gangsters run trucking companies that dump chemical waste generated in Italy and the rest of Europe into the waters, roadside, hills and fields of Campania. To escape detection, large trucks offload the waste into smaller panel trucks that burn their contents after dark to escape detection.

When LBJ was president, his wife Lady Bird went on a campaign to persuade Americans to avoid throwing their garbage out of car windows when traveling on the highways as part of a beautification campaign. As ugly as the sight of garbage strewn alongside Campania’s highways is, the real damage is medical not esthetic. The toxic dumping of heavy metals and other carcinogens has led to a cancer epidemic in the countryside that is dramatized by the story of one woman in the film whose baby developed leukemia a couple of months after his birth and who died just before his second birthday. When visiting him in the children’s ward, she was shocked to discover that several other women who lived nearby were visiting for the same reason. Considering the extreme rarity of the illness, this epidemic had to be investigated.

When the mothers made their case to the government, the Minister of Health who belonged to Berlusconi’s party, denied any connection between toxic dumping and the illnesses their children and other Campania residents were suffering and blamed them for indulging in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking. The mother bitterly comments that her son had never smoked a single cigarette in his entire life.

In early February, Congress repealed the Stream Protection Act that restricts coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams and waterways. One imagines that many miners or ex-miners considering West Virginia and Kentucky’s depressed state voted for Trump because he promised to make coal great again. You can be assured that jobs in the labor-intensive pit mines will not be restored. Instead, mountaintop removal will continue unabated and that the coal companies will be at liberty to dump the toxic waste into local waters, thus ratcheting up the cancer rate. This might not be fascism, but it is certainly class dictatorship under the façade of democracy.

This film and every other film on the Socially Relevant Film Festival schedule will help arm us politically for the struggles we will surely carry out over the next four years, and for that matter over the decades to come as American big business continues to treat us as its subjects rather than as citizens in a democracy. As I have stated on many occasions, filmmakers such as those whose work can be seen at this film festival are a key part of the emerging vanguard of the coming American revolution. Don’t miss a chance to see them in action.

March 9, 2017


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:29 pm

Opening today at the Museum of Modern Art for a one-week run is “Uncertain”, a documentary that derives its title from the hamlet (population 94) of the same name in Texas close to the border with Louisiana. The film begins with its characteristic dry humor pointing to signs posted for the “Uncertain Police Department”, etc. Uncertain’s chief of police notes that it has always been a magnet for people fleeing from the law in Louisiana. Just one step across state lines and you are home free.

There are three subjects in the film who typify its marginal existence, evoked by the name of the place they call home. One is a heavily tattooed, diabetic and alcoholic young man who feels trapped in Uncertain, especially with its lack of a single unmarried woman. Early on we see him at a Karaoke bar singing a Beatles song terribly off-key. The second is a former heroin addict and American Indian who has cleaned up his life and found himself in Uncertain. He spends almost every leisure hour trying to kill a giant boar that has staked out territory in the woods near Uncertain. The beast has become his Moby Dick. The third is a 74-year old African-American who loves to fish in the nearby lake that is suffering from an overgrowth of vegetation that will kill the fish and bring an end to the tourist trade, one of the few sources of income. He has spent years in prison as a young man for shooting someone in the face during a senseless squabble.

The contrast between MOMA, a flagship of the liberal bourgeoisie, and the film’s subjects could not be sharper. In less capable hands, the film could have smacked of Hillary Clinton’s attitudinizing about “deplorables” but co-directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands obviously have a real affection for the three men and allow their humanity to shine through. The American Indian visits the grave of a young African-American who he killed in an auto accident while DWI, while the old African-American reflects on the approach of death that will reunite him with his wife who is in heaven. He only hopes that he won’t end up in hell since admits being bad to the bone when young.

Since I grew up in a tiny village in the countryside (population 300 or so), I have an affinity for films like this. If you are in NYC, you might want to check “Uncertain” out at the MOMA. It will be available as VOD afterwards and worth looking for on iTunes and the other VOD sources. I would also recommend “Vernon, Florida”, an Errol Morris film that is a bit more patronizing and “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” that has the same combination of small town eccentrics and a dying body of water.  It can be seen for a mere $2.99 and is tons of fun.


March 8, 2017

I Called Him Morgan

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Opening in NYC on March 24th and in Los Angeles a week later, “I Called Him Morgan” is the greatest film about a jazz musician I have seen. Although it is a documentary, it puts to shame narrative films that have fallen flat such as Don Cheadle’s on Miles Davis. Even if you are not a jazz fan, this is a compelling and informative work that might even motivate you to buy Lee Morgan CD’s. The film benefits from an almost nonstop score made up of his performances that are a reminder of how much of a loss his death at 33 years was. Combined with some amazing still photos of Lee Morgan and his contemporaries, this is a feast for both the ears and the eyes.

Not only is this a chronicle of one of the great trumpet players of the 50s to the early 70s, it is also a love story about Morgan and Helen, the woman who loved him. On February 19, 1972, when Morgan was playing at Slug’s on the lower east side, a club I used to haunt in the mid-60s when I was living in NYC, Helen Morgan came there to confront her husband. He had been spending far too much time with a younger woman who was in the club that night. In an altercation involving the three, Helen was evicted from the premises into the snowy night. She stormed back into the club and fired two bullets into her husband’s chest. The blizzard, which had left more than a foot of snow at that point, kept an ambulance from arriving for more than a hour. He died in the hospital. I could not help but think of the pop tune written in 1912:

Johnny saw Frankie a-comin’, Out the back door he did scoot
But Frankie took aim with her pistol, And the gun went roota-toot-toot
He was her man but he done her wrong

In an introduction to his new class in an adult education program in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1996, Larry Reni Thomas began by referring to his past gig as a jazz DJ. Later on one of the students, an elderly woman who he considered very street-smart but without a formal education, mentioned to him that her husband had been a jazz musician. When Thomas found out that it was Lee Morgan, he invited her to sit down for an interview. The audio tape of that interview forms an important strand in the narrative of “I Called Him Morgan”, including the film’s title. Helen Morgan didn’t care for the name Lee, preferring to call him Morgan.

Lee Morgan was a leading member of what has been referred to as “hard bop” movement that emerged in the mid-50s. Trumpet players like Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard were strongly influenced by Clifford Brown who died tragically in an auto accident on his way to a gig on June 25, 1956 at the age of 25. Born in 1938, Morgan was Clifford Brown’s student in Philadelphia and an acknowledged prodigy who joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at the age of 18.

After Dizzy’s band folded, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958, a group that was considered the foremost exponent of the hard bop style. That year they recorded “Moanin’”, a tune that is considered one of the great jazz anthems of all time. It epitomized the synthesis of bebop chord changes and traditional “soul” music in the Black community found in the blues, gospel music and r&b. Listen to it here to get an idea of what jazz sounded like in its glory days:

You can see the band performing this number in “I Called Him Morgan” as well as many other classic performances on the Steve Allen Show and other vintage television shows before TV became corrupted with formulaic pop music.

Side by side, as we learn about Morgan’s musical evolution, we get Helen Morgan’s story, an all too familiar tale of racial and gender oppression in the Deep South. She had her first child at the age of 13 and another a year later. In her late teens, she married a man who would die a couple of years into their marriage. Soon afterwards she moved to NYC where she was welcomed by her late husband’s relatives and into a hip, urban environment. As she tells Larry Reni Thomas early on, she hated the country and doing chores on her father’s farm.

In no time at all, she became celebrated by jazz musicians for her quick wit, feistiness, sex appeal and opening her apartment up to the community as a kind of salon where they could always count on a fabulous meal and each other’s company. To pay the rent and other expenses, Helen Morgan worked for an answering service by day, a job more easily available to Black women.

One day, she ran into Lee Morgan at one of her get-togethers and figured out immediately that he was strung out on heroin. Since it was a cold winter’s day, she asked him where his coat was. His answer: the pawn shop. She took his arm in hers and went to the pawn shop to get his coat out of hock. This was the beginning of a May-November romance (she was 13 years older) that gave her great happiness and him a second chance on a career after she nursed him back to health and kept him on the straight and narrow. The tragic ending to this marriage was not inevitable but as is so often the case, murders are the result of domestic quarrels that get out of hand. With the easy availability of handguns (Lee had bought one for her Helen for her own protection), it is no wonder that such killings take place routinely—but usually it is the woman who dies.

Among the breakthroughs in this film made by Swedish director Kasper Collin, whose last documentary was on Albert Ayler, is the assembling of interviewees who had played alongside Lee Morgan, including Wayne Shorter, “Tootie” Heath, Larry Ridley, Charlie Persip and others. Now mostly in their 70s, they are knowledgeable about Lee Morgan as a person and a musician. Shorter comes across as true savant of this world and a musician whose biography (much more of an “as-told-to” memoir) is going on my must-read list for 2017.

I urge you to put this film on your must-see list for 2017. “I Called Him Morgan” opens on Friday, March 24 at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center andt will be followed on Friday, March 31 at NYC’s Metrograph Theater and the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles with a national expansion to follow.

March 7, 2017


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

“Tanna”, a joint Australia-Vanuatu production, is being released as VOD today. (Amazon, iTunes, and Youtube).

Nominated by Australia for a foreign-language Oscar, the film features members of the Yakel tribe on the island of Tanna who live according to customs that probably go back 3,300 years when the island chain of Vanuatu was settled by distant relatives of the Australian aborigines. The Yakel will remind you of the Yanomami, especially with the naked tribesmen’s only clothing a “penis sheath”. In a hilarious scene early in the film, a young boy is mortified to discover that a girl named Selin has run off with his sheath while he was swimming as a prank.

Being bare-assed passes muster in a world where people live close to nature in what Marshall Sahlins once called stone age affluence. You labored to produce the bare necessities and then spent the rest of your time in leisure, including swimming in the Edenic-like waters of Tanna.

But it is not quite a paradise. The Yakel are in a low-intensity war with the Imedin who live only a few miles from their village. When a shaman takes Selin on a walk through the forest to teach her about taboos that must be respected, a couple of Imedin warriors spy them from afar. One says to the other that the shaman has cast a spell on their kava garden and must be killed.

That is what happens. When the shaman and Selin are on another walkabout, this time on the precipice of Mount Yasur, a very active volcano on Tanna, he is mortally clubbed by Imedin warriors. After his death several days later, as the Yakel men prepare themselves for a raid on the Imedin village, an elder advises them that the time for killing is over. The two tribes must make peace with each other since their numbers are dwindling. As defenders of a culture going back for millennia, they must preserve their way of life rather than destroying each other in senseless warfare.

A peace gathering between the Yakel and the Imedin starts off well. They exchange gifts such as pigs and kava. But one item is not so easily exchanged. The village elder offers the young and beautiful Wawa as a bride to an Imedin man in an arranged marriage but she loves Dain, a Yakel man. The two run off together in the hopes of living on their own in the forest.

I have seen close to a dozen narrative films featuring hunting and gathering societies over the years but none comes close to “Tanna” in terms of story-telling expertise, acting by non-professionals, cinematography, music and political insight.

In a brilliant scene, Dain and Wawa visit a Christian village to see if they can find sanctuary there. The first thing they hear from a couple of “saved” Vanuatans is that they must dress as proper Christians. Wawa’s grass skirt must go, and Dain’s penis shaft must go particularly. They spend a few minutes watching the converts singing hymns and blathering about God and then decide to move on. Walking away with Dain, Wawa tells him, “Those people really freak me out”. The best line in a film since “I don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badge”.


Rania Khalek’s defenders

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:38 am

Rania Khalek

A bunch of high-profile leftists have signed a statement denouncing the “witch-hunt” against Khalek as part of an ongoing campaign to defend her against angry, largely Arab activists opposed to Assad. The statement, not the first, deals with the withdrawal of an invitation to speak to SJP at the U. of North Carolina. A Shadowproof article indicates the kind of opposition to her appearance she ran into:

Amr Kawji said to the SJP chapter, “Save yourselves the embarrassment and cancel your event with Rania Khalek—an Islamophobic pro-Assad propagandist. So ashamed.”

“As a Syrian American (and former SJP member),” he wrote on their Facebook event page, “I am asking you kindly to either cancel this event with Rania Khalek or replace her with a coherent speaker. Rania’s comments on Syria and Islam have been extremely hurtful to many people, and she should not be allowed to continue to spew her propaganda. Save yourselves the embarrassment and please cancel the event or find someone else.”

Adam Sabra, a professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, also wrote on the Facebook event page, “I share other people’s concerns about inviting Rania Khalek to campus. In particular, her support for the Syrian regime undermines her credibility to speak on behalf of the Palestinian cause. I ask you to reconsider.”

Now, if the pro-Khalek statement has the effect of intimidating people like Kawji and Sabra from posting such comments on social networks in advance of a future Khalek appearance, can we conclude that they have become victims of McCarthyism as well? Just asking.

This is what happens when you go out on a limb to write Assadist propaganda. When Mother Agnes Mariam was invited to speak at John Rees’s pro-Assad confab in England a few years ago, people pressured Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill to withdraw, which they did. So did the degenerate nun. Everybody on Rees’s side raised a stink about her being silenced, like Neil Clark writing for RT.com.

The next flare-up was over Tim Anderson speaking at a conference on refugees on a Greek island. Anderson, who is a whole order of magnitude more toxic than Khalek, was disinvited and then re-invited. Here’s Anderson blasting those who would deny him his free speech rights, on Global Research of course.

This stuff goes on all the time when it comes to Syria. You are talking about a deep divide on the left over matters that have the same intensity as the Spanish Civil War. I personally am opposed to lobbying groups or magazines to prevent her from making a living. Yes, let Khalek make her living writing articles justifying the killing of White Helmets because they are “linked to al-Qaeda”. If Khalek needs to get paid to write such garbage, why should we stand in the way? It is only her own reputation she is destroying. Eventually the jobs will dry up anyhow because writing the kind of crap that she, Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal write will eventually mark them as hacks. The dirty little secret, after all, is that all these people are writing the same talking points that get passed around like a sexually transmitted disease.

If you want to know where the “smart” people are going, just reflect on Jacobin breaking ties with the Assadist left, as reflected by the signatures on the statement of a couple of people who used to write this kind of crap for them: Greg Shupak and David Mizner. It took far too long for Jacobin to reverse itself but better late than never.

The best approach is to point out how bad she is politically, the latest example taking the word of academic counter-terrorism “expert” Max Abrahms in a Salon article, whose poll revealed that Syrian refugees blame the rebels just as much as Assad. Max Abrahms is a hard-core Islamophobe who has been writing articles for the past 6 years making an amalgam between jihadists and everybody else who took up guns against the filthy murderer Bashar al-Assad.

You might want to look at Joel Beinin’s article “US: the pro-Sharon thinktank” from the July 2003 Le Monde diplomatique where he identifies Abrahms as a specialist in Israeli security affairs and a columnist for the National Review Online.

I invite you to check out Abrahms’s articles at National Review. Why a “pro-Palestinian” like Khalek would take Abrahms at his word is beyond me. Check out this article by Abrahms on the National Review website and see for yourself. Is this the sort of person we should trust for an objective survey on Syria?:

How does one explain this marked improvement in Israeli security? The “cycle of violence” theory would posit that such a reduction in terror derives from Israeli softness. Again, this logic was proven false. To staunch the bleeding from Israel’s July 2000 openhandedness, the Israel Defense Forces used an iron fist. Operation Defensive Shield, initiated in March 2002, brought the fight to the terrorists by deploying massive numbers of troops to the West Bank. This was language terrorists could understand. Evidently, it worked.

The only other thing worth mentioning is the utterly preposterous claim made in the statement: “The signers of this statement hold a range of views on Syria. Some agree with Khalek; others disagree – in some cases quite vehemently.”

What a joke. I don’t recognize a single name of anybody who is now a critic of Assad. Maybe sitting around a dining table, they might say things like “Assad is sooo icky” but not a single one has ever made a public statement to that effect.

Yes, Bassam Haddad signed the statement but he gave up supporting the rebels 5 years ago. Everybody else shares Khalek’s “analysis”, such as it is, including hard-core Assadists like Rick Sterling, Paul Larudee and Joe Emersberger.


March 4, 2017

The revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry? Say what?

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Lenin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

When I first heard the term “revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” not long after joining the SWP in 1967, I said to myself “What the fuck is that?” Democratic dictatorship, say what?

Soon, I learned that this was a term coined by V.I. Lenin to convey the goals of the Bolshevik Party in the coming Russian revolution. Basically, it meant that the workers would make a revolution against the feudal class in Russia that dominated the countryside and that was represented politically by the Czar. After that stage had been accomplished, Russia would go on to the next stage of capitalist development freed from feudal constraints. Under those conditions, the workers would take advantage of constitutional freedoms to build a socialist party modeled on the German social democracy that can overthrow the capitalist system. When Lenin used the term “dictatorship”, he used it like Marx in “Critique of the Gotha Program”:

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

It did not mean rule by a dictator, but rule by a class. Under bourgeois democracy, there is a dictatorship of the capital class. Under workers democracy, there is a dictatorship of the working class. In my view, it was probably a mistake for Marx or Lenin to use the word dictatorship, since it can be so easily misunderstood especially when Stalin exercised personal rule over Russia in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the early 70s, American Maoists defended Lenin’s strategy as a way of establishing “revolutionary continuity” with the Bolshevik Party in the same way that the SWP carried the banner of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. In 1973, Carl Davidson wrote a series of articles in the Guardian (a defunct radical newsweekly, not the British daily) titled “Left in Form, Right in Essence: A Critique of Contemporary Trotskyism” that many SDS’ers transitioning into “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” found useful. The second in the series was titled “Two lines on ‘permanent revolution’” that basically recapitulates arguments made by Stalin and his flunkies in the 1920s:

Trotsky’s views on the course of the Russian revolution, like those of the Mensheviks, were refuted by history. The revolution was both uninterrupted and developed in stages. The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants came into being during the first stage, during the period of the dual power and in the special form of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

In 1924, there was a heated debate in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between Trotsky and his detractors, including Josef Stalin and Lev Kamenev, over the two opposing lines. Kamenev’s article, which was titled “Leninism or Trotskyism?” and written in wooden prose, is virtually indistinguishable from Davidson’s as this excerpt would indicate:

Lenin stood for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry—Trotsky opposed it! Here, as Lenin pointed out, he caused great confusion with his left phrase on “permanent revolution.” In this last point Trotsky gave the impression of being more left than Lenin. He was not content with the mere dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, but demanded permanent revolution. Here we have merely a further example of what Lenin impressed upon us for so many years with regard to Trotsky: a right policy with regard to daily questions of actual practice, but skilfully disguised in the phraseology of the Left.

Davidson said, “Left in Form, Right in Essence” and Kamenev referred to a “right policy…skillfully disguised in the phraseology of the Left”. Pretty much the same thing.

By the time the Maoist sects began falling apart, two important Trotskyist groups had become convinced that Kamenev and Stalin were right. One was the SWP and the other was the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia, a group that tended to follow its lead. For the SWP, the turn against this theoretical foundation stone of the Fourth International was part and parcel of a turn to what they thought would be a new international based in Cuba and that included the FSLN in Nicaragua, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada and the ANC, et al. The SWP stopped theorizing about Permanent Revolution one way or another long ago, largely because of the loss of cadre who were up to such tasks while the Australians became much more engaged with less abstruse matters such as how to relate to the Kurdish struggle, etc. There are theoretical implications flowing from current struggles in the Middle East and Latin America but few activists or scholars invoke Lenin in Trotsky when trying to analyze them, with perhaps the exception of Steve Ellner who wrote an article in 2011 titled Does the process of change in Venezuela resemble a “Permanent Revolution”?

I hadn’t thought much about these matters for a few years until an article by Eric Blanc appeared in the new Historical Materialism blog titled “Before Lenin: Bolshevik Theory and Practice in February 1917 Revisited” that questions  those accounts of Lenin’s April Theses as a rejection of the “old Bolshevik” strategy of the democratic dictatorship and a virtual embrace of Permanent Revolution. Blanc writes:

Seeking to push back against the increasingly bureaucratised party apparatus, Trotsky initiated the polemic in his famous 1924 The Lessons of October. In this pamphlet he argued, among other things, that the Bolshevik party under the leadership of Stalin and Lev Kamenev was mired in de-facto Menshevism before Lenin arrived in April 1917 and re-armed the party with an entirely new political strategy.

But for Blanc, this version of history “obscures more than it clarifies”. After reading Lars Lih, he became convinced that the Bolsheviks did aim to seize power before Lenin’s return in April, 1917 and only differed with Lenin on the details. That does not seem to square with Lenin’s combative words with the old guard in “Letters on Tactics”, however:

The person who now speaks only of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of “Bolshevik” pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of “old Bolsheviks”).

Keep in mind that the overthrow of the Czar took place in February. So, the period of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” lasted exactly two months according to Lenin’s timeline, not twenty years. This does not correspond to the schema in which workers would gather up their resources and move toward confronting the capitalist class as a powerful, well-organized party after the fashion of Kautsky’s social democracy that had millions of members. Some scholars believe that the Bolsheviks had 16,000 members in 1917. That’s not exactly a mass party although its influence was wide and deep enough to catapult it into the leadership of the 20th century’s most important proletarian revolution.

Blanc seems to straddle the fence between the “old Bolsheviks” like Stalin and Kamenev on one side and Trotsky on the other. In a footnote, he states:

Challenging Trotsky’s interpretation of early 1917 neither requires rejecting the strategy of permanent revolution, nor accepting Stalinist accounts of 1917. In subsequent articles, I will show that despite the limitations in his interpretation of pre-Lenin Bolshevism, on the whole the politics of the party in 1917, and the course of the revolution, confirm the fundamental political tenets of permanent revolution.

I look forward to reading those articles but for now want to concentrate on Lars Lih’s 43-page article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” that appeared in Russian History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2011) and that Blanc credits as his framework for understanding this period.

Unlike most people who get involved in these controversies, including me, Lars Lih does not try to connect these debates to anything going on in the world today. In fact, outside of writing articles about Bolshevik history, his main interest seems to be music. He has performed in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and is a lecturer on music history and musicology at McGill University. He worked in the office of Democratic Party House of Representative Ron Dellums for six years but I wouldn’t make too much of that. It might have been just a job.

Before I discuss the article, I’d make a summary analysis of Lih’s approach, which is to create a revolutionary continuity between Karl Kautsky’s Social Democratic Party in Germany and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party—and more particularly the continuity between “old Bolshevism” and the party that took power in October 1917. According to this narrative, there was no basis for claiming that Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas about the Russian revolution converged with the April Theses. Everything that happened in 1917 was a vindication of the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. You might even conclude that if Lenin had become convinced of Trotsky’s theory after 1905 and acted on that belief, the Russian Revolution would have not happened.

Lih spends nearly 10 pages recapitulating Stalin and Kamenev’s support for a bourgeois-democratic revolution to acquaint his readers with “old Bolshevik” thinking. In a nutshell, this meant that the Russian workers rather than the bourgeoisie would overthrow the feudal aristocracy after the fashion of France 1789. This is consistent with Trotsky’s analysis except that he argued that if the workers held political power, they would move rapidly toward socialism as he put it in the 1906 “Results and Prospects”:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie. The political domination of the proletariat, even if it is only temporary, will weaken to an extreme degree the resistance of capital, which always stands in need of the support of the state, and will give the economic struggle of the proletariat tremendous scope.

After presenting the background to the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry strategy, Lih then turns his attention to how Stalin and Kamenev deployed it to great success in 1917 after some initial turmoil over Lenin’s new-found opposition to “old Bolshevik” strategy.

He dismisses the idea that Kamenev and Stalin were adapting to the provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky, using quotes such as this one from Stalin to establish their revolutionary credentials:

Many comrades, coming in from the provinces, ask whether we should pose the question of the seizure of the vlast right now. But to pose this question now is premature … We must wait until the Provisional Government exhausts itself, when, in the process of carrying out the revolutionary program, it discredits itself. The only organ that is able to take the vlast is the Soviet of Worker and Peasant Deputies on an all-Russian scale. [Lih has the disconcerting tendency to use Russian words when the English translation would suffice. Vlast means power.]

Far be it for me to cast doubt on Stalin’s revolutionary credentials, but the idea of waiting for the Provisional Government to exhaust itself sounds exactly the sort of thing that got Lenin’s dander up. Contrast Stalin’s cautiousness with Lenin’s characterization of the provisional government in “Letters from Afar” written within days of Stalin’s remarks:

The whole of the new government is monarchist, for Kerensky’s verbal republicanism simply   cannot be taken seriously, is not worthy of a statesman and, objectively, is political chicanery. The new government, which has not dealt the tsarist monarchy the final blow, has already begun to strike a bargain with the landlord Romanov Dynasty. The bourgeoisie of the Octobrist-Cadet type needs a monarchy to serve as the head of the bureaucracy and the army in order to protect the privileges of capital against the working people.

For Lih, the “Letters from Afar” were not a breach with “old Bolshevism” but its continuation. He quotes Lenin’s first letter to prove that: “Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open of the eyes of the narod to the deception practiced by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organization, their own unity, and their own weapons.”

However, this must be weighed against what Lenin wrote in the fourth letter:

The proletariat, on the other hand, if it wants to uphold the gains of the present revolution and proceed further, to win peace, bread and freedom, must “smash”, to use Marx’s expression, this “ready-made” state machine and substitute a new one for it by merging the police force, the army and the bureaucracy with the entire armed people. Following the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat, must organise and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power.

This, of course, is what Lenin would elaborate on in “State and Revolution”. The real breach between Lenin and Kamenev/Stalin was over whether proletarian revolution was on the agenda. Nobody could possibly mistake the Paris Commune as a “bourgeois revolution” even if Lenin referred to one in the first letter. For Marx, the Commune was a breach with the revolutions of the past, as surely would have been obvious to Lenin. If October 1917 was a “bourgeois revolution” based on old Bolshevik formulas, so then was the Paris Commune.

In March, Stalin and Kamenev were the editors of Pravda. When they received the first letter from afar, they published it but only after deleting healthy chunks of it. For Lih, there’s nothing political about the excisions that according to Russian historian by Eduard Burdzhalov were criticisms of the Provisional Government, the SRs and the Mensheviks with “particular sharpness”.

Now I ask you why Kamenev and Stalin would decide to delete any attacks on Kerensky and the Mensheviks. I hate to sound suspicious but it might have something to do with them considering the seizure of power to be “premature”, as Stalin put it.

What’s missing from Lars Lih’s narrative is the most compelling issue of all that divided Lenin from the “old Bolsheviks”, namely Kerensky’s continued support for the imperialist war that was arguably the straw that broke the back of the Russian workers and peasantry.

Before Stalin and Kamenev took over as Pravda editors in March 1917, the newspaper had adhered to the Bolshevik Party’s antiwar line. Historian Alexander Rabinowitch, who does not have a reputation as a defender of Trotsky’s reputation, describes the first issue under their control in his “Prelude to Revolution”:

But all this changed in the middle of March with the return from Siberia of Kamenev, Stalin, and M. K. Muranov and their subsequent seizure of control of Pravda. Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day. Kamenev explained the mild attitude of the new Pravda editorial hoard to a meeting of the Petersburg Committee on March 18, where it met with approval. Obviously, this position contrasted sharply with the views expressed by Lenin in his “Letters from Afar,” and it is not surprising that Pravda published only the first of these and with numerous deletions at that. Among crucial phrases censored out was Lenin’s accusation that “those who advocate that the workers support the new government in the interests of the struggle against Tsarist reaction (as do the Potresovs, Gvozdevs, Chkhenkelis, and in spite of all his inclinations, even Chkheidze [all Mensheviks]) are traitors to the workers, traitors to the cause of the proletariat, [and] the cause of freedom.” Lenin might have applied this accusation to Kamenev and Stalin as well.

None of this is mentioned in Lars Lih’s article, who would obviously have too big a job on his hands trying to treat it as a friendly disagreement over petty matters. He blithely assures us that “Even as a tactical debate, the clash at the April meetings seems based more on mutual misunderstandings than on substance.” Right. With Kamenev writing that “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell”, why would the author of the Zimmerwald Manifesto be troubled?

Furthermore, Lih’s article stops rather prematurely with the supposed Kumbaya convergence between Lenin and those who he took issue with after returning to Russia in April 1917. It is best to look at what happened when Lenin and the leftwing of the Bolshevik Party decided to seize power.

Kamenev and Zinoviev, two of the “old Bolsheviks” extolled by Lars Lih for their consistently revolutionary outlook, not only voted against the proposal but literally scabbed on the party. Their statement included this: “It is a profound historic error to pose the question of the transfer of power to the proletarian party – either now or at any time. No, the party of the proletariat will grow, its programme will become clear to broader and broader masses.” This, of course, is consistent with Stalin’s warning in March that the seizure of power was “premature”. They submitted an article to Maxim Gorky’s newspaper in a clear violation of party norms. When the question of insurrection is being posed inside the party, it is treacherous to reveal it to the reading public, including the cops.

Although Stalin did not join his “old Bolshevik” comrades in going public with their opposition to the seizure of power, he “supported Kamenev and Zinoviev at the most critical moment, four days before the beginning of the insurrection, with a sympathetic declaration”, according to minutes taken at a Pravda editorial board meeting.

Lenin was so incensed by the two “old Bolsheviks” that he demanded their expulsion in November, 1917:

You must recall, comrades, that two of the deserters, Kamenev and Zinoviev, acted as deserters and blacklegs even before the Petrograd uprising; for they not only voted against the uprising at the decisive meeting of the Central Committee on October 10, 1917, but, even after the decision had been taken by the Central Committee, agitated among the Party workers against the uprising. It is common knowledge that newspapers which fear to take the side of the workers and are more inclined to side with the bourgeoisie (e.g., Novaya Zhizn ), raised at that time, in common with the whole bourgeois press, a hue and cry about the “disintegration’ of our Party, about “the collapse of the uprising” and so on.

It should be noted that Lenin never followed through. The two men remained loyal party members afterwards and served the revolution until Stalin had them executed for opposing his bureaucratic rule.

In general, I am opposed to building cults around revolutionary figures including Lenin or Trotsky. Lenin’s democratic-dictatorship strategy was flawed as was Trotsky’s attempt to build a new international. Lih’s attempt to create a red ribbon pedigree from Marx to Kautsky to Lenin reminds me of what I used to get in the Trotskyist movement even though the line of succession was different. At least you can credit Lih for sticking to Lenin scholarship, even if he errs at times. Unlike some cult figures in the academy I ran into 40 years ago trying to build a Leninist vanguard like Frank Furedi or Alex Callinicos, Lih is content to publish in Historical Materialism and speak at their conferences, bless his heart.

I hope that someday Lars Lih will give Trotsky’s writings the attention they deserve. To reduce the theory of Permanent Revolution to its essentials, it boils down to the need for a proletarian revolution to achieve the historical goals of the bourgeois revolution such as the breakup of feudal estates, the elimination of clerical domination over society, constitutional rights such as a free press and the right of assembly, and the assumption of “Enlightenment values” in general. These are the obvious gains of the British and French bourgeois revolutions that were emulated to one degree or another in Western Europe in the 19th century.

If February 1917 was supposed to be the inauguration of such profound social and political changes, it was lost on Lenin who pushed immediately for a new revolution that could displace Kerensky’s capitalist-Czarist state with its feudal estates and imperial warmongering. The slogan “Peace, Bread and Land”, after all, was directed against Kerensky as an ultimatum, not as an obsequious request.

It was only after the capitalist state had been smashed and a new one based on the Paris Commune that such changes began to take place. In a speech given on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, Lenin made this clear:

What were the chief manifestations, survivals, remnants of serfdom in Russia up to 1917? The monarchy, the system of social estates, landed proprietorship and land tenure, the status of women, religion, and national oppression. Take any one of these Augean stables, which, incidentally, were left largely uncleansed by all the more advanced states when they accomplished their bourgeois-democratic revolutions one hundred and twenty-five, two hundred and fifty and more years ago (1649 in England); take any of these Augean stables, and you will see that we have cleansed them thoroughly. In a matter of ten weeks, from October 25 (November 7), 1917 to January 5, 1918, when the Constituent Assembly was dissolved, we accomplished a thousand times more in this respect than was accomplished by the bourgeois democrats and liberals (the Cadets) and by the petty-bourgeois democrats (the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries) during the eight months they were in power.

Those poltroons, gas-bags, vainglorious Narcissuses and petty Hamlets brandished their wooden swords—but did not even destroy the monarchy! We cleansed out all that monarchist muck as nobody had ever done before. We left not a stone, not a brick of that ancient edifice, the social-estate system even the most advanced countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, have not completely eliminated the survivals of that system to this day!), standing. We tore out the deep-seated roots of the social-estate system, namely, the remnants of feudalism and serfdom in the system of landownership, to the last. “One may argue” (there are plenty of quill-drivers, Cadets, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries abroad to indulge in such arguments) as to what “in the long run” will be the outcome of the agrarian reform effected by the Great October Revolution.

So, the beginning of the new era was on October 25th, at the very moment the proletarian dictatorship had begun. There is no evidence that Lenin came to this conclusion after reading Leon Trotsky. He followed his own political instincts to break with the “old Bolshevik” orthodoxy that Lars Lih wants to reestablish.

I have no idea whether Lih is familiar with how the debate over the dynamics of the proletarian revolution would reemerge with events in China in the 1920s but given time I might turn to them to make the uselessness of the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry more obvious.


March 3, 2017

Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

The Scab Economy: the Origins of America’s Anti-Union Movement

The counter-clockwise rotation speeds up under Republican presidents and slows down a bit under Democrats but it never stops. Only a revolution will reset the clock once and for all.

I was reminded of this while reading Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement that was published in 2015. If you knew nothing about the contents, you might assume from the title that it referred to the Truman presidency when the Taft-Hartley bill was passed. But instead it harkens back to the turn of the century when Theodore Roosevelt was president and whose Square Deal meant conservation, trust-busting, respect for workers and other progressive measures.

Read full article

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.