Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 30, 2017

Sex, Repression, Censorship and Lady Macbeth

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:43 pm

When I received word from a publicist that a new film titled Lady Macbeth based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, Lady MacBeth of Mtsenk, would be opening on July 14th, it motivated me to attend a press screening and to dig a bit deeper into the controversy unleashed by Shostakovich’s 1934 opera adaptation of the same work. I also discovered that Andrzej Wajda had made a film based on Leskov’s novella and since I have written about Wajda for CounterPunch and plan to write some more, it seemed worth my while to see his version, which fortunately is online with English subtitles. For those who want to delve into the tangled history of all this, you can also read Leskov’s novella and see a film production of Shostakovich’s opera that was banned in the Soviet Union for decades. In its entirety, the Lady Macbeth saga ties together sex, politics and art in a most provocative manner and will leave you marveling over how this lurid tale that was originally published in Dostoyevsky’s magazine could have such staying power.

Although not so nearly as well known as other Russian novelists of the 19th century, Leskov was held in high esteem by Tolstoy and Chekhov. In a useful entry on Leskov, Wikipedia notes that although he was angry over social conditions in Czarist Russia, he thought that education rather than agrarian revolution was necessary. His debut novel No Way Out was a dark satire on a feckless socialist whose comrades were amoral crooks using political agitation for personal gain. The Russian social democratic press was outraged over the work and wrote articles charging the author with being a police agent. Eventually some of the more enlightened intellectuals of the left revised their opinion, especially Maxim Gorky who saw him primarily as a social critic.

Continue reading

June 28, 2017

Seymour Hersh’s misfires on Khan Sheikhoun

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

On June 26th Die Welt published an article by Seymour Hersh that made the case that the Syrian military was not responsible for a Sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 6th. Instead, what supposedly took place was the unfortunate collateral damage of a leakage of toxic material when a guided missile struck a building where jihadists were meeting. Without exactly revealing how he got the information about what was stored there, Hersh points to supplies of chlorine in the basement that the jihadists dispensed to the locals when they needed to clean the bodies of the dead before burial as well as fertilizers used for growing crops. When a bomb hit the building, it created a Bhopal type disaster. The symptoms displayed by the victims was “consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and the organophosphates used in many fertilizers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.”

I found the business about using chlorine to cleanse bodies most intriguing, especially since every Muslim website I could find about burial rituals stresses the need for clean water. For example, Al-Islam stipulates:

It is obligatory to bathe a dead body thrice. The first bathing should be with water mixed with “Sidr” (Ben) leaves. The second bathing should be with water mixed with camphor and the third should be with clean water.

Well, who knows? Maybe it was the camphor that killed 58 people and wounded 300. Camphor is used in mothballs, after all. If you had sufficient camphor stored in the building—a couple of tons of the stuff—it might have killed 58 people, right? Or at least, a shitload of moths. As far as organophosphates being used in many fertilizers, I suspect that Hersh might have been referring to bug and weed killers rather than fertilizers. If you check Wikipedia, it says that they are the basis of many insecticides and herbicides but there is no mention of fertilizers. An innocent mistake, I suppose. Maybe if the New Yorker had decided to publish Hersh’s article, they would have caught it but then again the magazine had declined to publish anything by him on Syria since the articles didn’t pass the smell test.

Instead, he has published his crap in the London Review of Books until now. This is a journal that has been a prime outlet of Assadist propaganda going on five years now, making room for Hersh, Hugh Roberts, Tariq Ali and Patrick Cockburn to make the case for Assad being a lesser evil. But apparently, his latest “investigating reporting” didn’t make the LRB grade as Dirk Laabs points out in a companion piece to Hersh’s article:

Hersh had also offered the article to the London Review of Books. The editors accepted it, paid for it, and prepared a fact checked article for publication, but decided against doing so, as they told Hersh, because of concerns that the magazine would vulnerable [sic] to criticism for seeming to take the view of the Syrian and Russian governments when it came to the April 4th bombing in Khan Sheikhoun.

Let me tell you something. If LRB nixes something because it takes the side of the Syrian and Russian governments, it has to be pretty fucking bad.

While I have no idea how Hersh learned about chlorine in the basement or organophosphate fertilizers upstairs, he does make sure to impress the reader with the “inside” information that backs up his reporting:

Russian intelligence, which is shared when necessary with Syria and the U.S. as part of their joint fight against jihadist groups, had established that a high-level meeting of jihadist leaders was to take place in the building, including representatives of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Well, that cinches it, I guess. If Russian intelligence says so, it must be true. Why would they lie? So what if some people believe that the first casualty of war is truth. That couldn’t possibly apply to the Russians. The only problem I have with taking them at their word is their apparent reluctance to share the evidence that supports their findings. Hersh writes:

The Russians were intent on confirming their intelligence and deployed a drone for days above the site to monitor communications and develop what is known in the intelligence community as a POL – a pattern of life. The goal was to take note of those going in and out of the building, and to track weapons being moved back and forth, including rockets and ammunition.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, I bought a Mavic Pro camera drone for $1000 that could have recorded all of these goings on. For that matter, ISIS has purchased off-the-shelf amateur type drones and equipped them with explosives to slow the advance of the Iraqi army. You mean to tell me that the Russians couldn’t have made such evidence available to all their stooges in the West, from Vanessa Beeley to Eva Bartlett? Either they are getting soft or they were just lying. You be the judge.

Another companion piece to Hersh’s article got my eyebrows raised so high that I began to fear that they would take wing and fly off. Titled “We got a fuckin ‘problem“, it purports to be an electronic chat between a security adviser and an active US American soldier on duty on a key operational base about the events in Khan Sheikhoun.

American Soldier: We got a fuckin‘ problem

Security-Adviser: What happened? Is it the Trump ignoring the Intel and going to try to hit the Syrians? And that we’re pissing on the Russians?

AS: This is bad…Things are spooling up.

SA: You may not have seen trumps press conference yesterday. He’s bought into the media story without asking to see the Intel.  We are likely to get our asses kicked by the Russians.  Fucking dangerous.  Where are the godamn adults? The failure of the chain of command to tell the President the truth, whether he wants to hear it or not, will go down in history as one of our worst moments.

AS: I don’t know. None of this makes any sense. We KNOW that there was no chemical attack. The Syrians struck a weapons cache (a legitimate military target) and there was collateral damage. That’s it. They did not conduct any sort of a chemical attack.

Sounds like lines from Oliver Stone’s next movie, doesn’t it?

If you want to read a good take-down of Hersh’s crap, I recommend Elliot Higgins who wrote a piece titled “Will Get Fooled Again – Seymour Hersh, Welt, and the Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack”. Like Theodore Postol who couldn’t get his years straight, Hersh doesn’t seem bothered by the inconsistencies between his timeline and those of the regimes he seeks to defend. He writes, “The target was struck at 6:55 a.m” but the Syrian foreign ministry held a press conference after the attack that dated the incident at 8:30 a.m. Oh well, what’s 90 minutes between friends, least of all 80 year old investigative reporters who can’t be bothered with such details.

If I were Seymour Hersh, I would have retired long ago. In fact, posterity will not look kindly on these elder statesmen of the left who have lent their good name to defending the Baathist dictatorship. Hersh, Cockburn, Fisk, Chomsky—all of them.

Indeed there were signs a decade ago that Hersh was “slipping”. (That’s the word my mother’s friend used to alert me to my mom’s behavior once she hit my age. She was losing her temper a lot and was driving erratically. Come to think of it, that pretty much describes me as well.)

In 2007, Michael Young, the opinion editor of The Daily Star, a Lebanese daily, started his Counterpunch article with words that opened with words indicate little respect for the “legendary” reporter:

It’s become a habit to greet whatever journalist Seymour Hersh writes with reverence. However, after his ludicrous claim last summer that Israel’s war in Lebanon was a trial run for an American bombing of Iran – an accusation undermined by postwar narratives showing the confused way Israel and the United States responded to the conflict – my doubts hardened.

The gist of Hersh’s article was that the Bush administration was lining up with Sunni extremists in Lebanon, something that Michael Young found untenable:

What about Hersh’s belief that the Bush administration is illegally hiding aspects of its pro-Sunni regional strategy? “The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution of the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process.” The administration’s point man in this endeavor is purportedly Vice President Dick Cheney.

This revelation is noteworthy, but when we turn to the final part of Hersh’s text in which he addresses congressional oversight issues, we find little meat.

Little meat? That’s being generous. I’d say that Hersh had written a jumbo-sized shit sandwich and continues to do so.

June 27, 2017

Commentary on Bhaskar Sunkara’s New York Times op-ed

Filed under: social democracy — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Bhaskar Sunkara

Since its launch in 2010, Jacobin Magazine has shown up in one way or another in the NY Times 25 times. The references fall into different categories and are consistently supportive. You can see it cited as a barometer of left opinion with the conservative Catholic Russ Douhat being one such example. He wrote an op-ed on 12/29/2012 titled “How to Read in 2013” that advised his readers on how to stay on top of things:

Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.

I should add that the term neo-Marxist is often applied to Jacobin, although I am not sure that is the right word. Unlike Monthly Review that also earned that label rather unfairly, Jacobin functions much more as a host for articles written by both Marxists and left-liberals. Unlike the effort undertaken by Paul Sweezy or Harry Magdoff, I can’t discern any signs that the editorial board of Jacobin is devoted to renewing Marxist theory.

In line with Douhat’s demarcating the borders of what savvy NY Times readers should read (you can bet Monthly Review will remain unheralded), Jacobin has cropped up recently in a new feature titled “Right and Left: Partisan Writing You Shouldn’t Miss” that remains within the same confines—ideological kettling, so to speak. The Times has a rather peculiar notion of what it means to be “left” since you find Jacobin and Alan Dershowitz cheek by jowl on the portside.

Another type of Jacobin manifestation is seen less often nowadays, especially since the magazine is quite well-established. In its first few years, you saw breathless encomiums to the “new left” journals such as Jacobin, n+1, and New Inquiry that were often touted in that order as if they were respectively “win, place and show” in a horse race. I have been subscribed to the first two magazines for seven years now and don’t expect to try the third, maybe because the name sounds too much like the rancid New Criterion.

On January 20, 2013, Jennifer Schuessler gushed over how “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”. It gave you a good idea of how the gods were smiling on its founder:

“Bhaskar’s a really remarkable — I want to say kid, but that sounds condescending,” said the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who gave Jacobin a shout-out in Rolling Stone last June before inviting Mr. Sunkara onto his show. (Mr. Sunkara skipped part of his college graduation to appear.) “He’s got the combination of boastful assurance and competence of a very good young rapper.”

MSNBC? Rolling Stone? I can’t imagine Michael Yates or John Bellamy Foster traveling in such circles but then again they’re too busy trying to make revolutionary socialism relevant to our epoch through books and articles.

I emphasize the word revolutionary since it has a bearing on Bhaskar Sukara’s debut on the NY Times op-ed page, a sign of having “made it” in a highly competitive world. Except for former Marxism list moderator Zeynep Tukfeci who writes op-ed pieces about the Internet  (and who won’t even reply to a Twitter message I sent her), Bhaskar is the first Marxmail alumni who has elbowed his way to the top of the heap–you can’t get much more elevated than the NY Times op-ed page even if most of it is drivel. I doubt that the surly Michael Yates will ever get past the velvet rope with his blunt put-downs of the elite.

Now 28 years old, Bhaskar is advising NY Times readers about how “Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past”. Jesus, what was I doing when I was 28? That was 1973 and I was in Houston organizing Militant Labor Forums. I had been in the Trotskyist movement for six years by then and never written a single article. Oh, let me take that back. I had written some for the internal bulletin of the SWP during pre-convention discussion on arcane matters such as how the Cochranites became embourgeoisified even though they were auto workers but I understood that the audience was limited. (Drawing my analysis from James P. Cannon on Bert Cochran, I could have not been more wrong.) I guess the only benefit I got out of writing for internal bulletins is that it sharpened my polemical skills. If I had to make a choice between writing effective polemics for a narrow audience trying to figure out how to develop a revolutionary strategy and getting touted in the Rolling Stone, there’s no contest.

So  let’s accompany our neo-Marxist wunderkind Bhaskar on his stroll through 100 years of class struggle history. He tried to convey a short form of this on Twitter but without much success, I’m afraid.

Things start off problematically enough:

One hundred years after Lenin’s sealed train arrived at Finland Station and set into motion the events that led to Stalin’s gulags, the idea that we should return to this history for inspiration might sound absurd.

Now a serious neo-Marxist might have taken the trouble to elucidate the exact linkage between Lenin and Stalin but—jeez—this is the NY Times op-ed page, not New Left Review. In brief, the events that led to Stalin’s gulags had nothing to do with Lenin. They were the result of a brutal imperialist invasion that cost the lives of up to 12,000,000 civilians and massive economic losses. Wikipedia states that the industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. During this catastrophe, one of the greatest losses was that of the most conscious revolutionaries who rushed to join the Red Army and defend the socialist gains of 1917. When they died in combat, it left a vacuum filled by former officials of the Czarist bureaucracy that became Stalin’s chief base of support. All of this is explained in Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky, a book that I doubt Bhaskar will ever have time to read given the demands made on his time selling subscriptions and raising funds.

Sounding like he was 58 rather than 28, Bhaskar strikes a repentant note:

Most socialists have been chastened by the lessons of 20th-century Communism. Today, many who would have cheered on the October Revolution have less confidence about the prospects for radically transforming the world in a single generation. They put an emphasis instead on political pluralism, dissent and diversity.

I suppose he is right about “most socialists” since by his definition that includes an “avowedly socialist” leader like Bernie Sanders. This might be the heart of the problem. I don’t consider Sanders a socialist at all. He is a left-liberal of the MSNBC variety and uses the term socialist in the way I used to hear the term selling subscriptions to the Militant newspaper in college dorms a lifetime ago. Since the masthead of the paper described it as a “socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people”, the first question out of the mouth of the student tended to be something like “Socialist, like in Sweden?” I had no problem telling them, “No, like in Cuba”. As I said, this was a lifetime ago. Back then, an hour spent in a Columbia dorm would result in 25 subscriptions. That was when Che Guevara was alive and kicking, the Black community was rising up against the cops and the National Guard, and the Vietnamese were fighting the anti-imperialist battle of the century. Clearly the lack of such objective conditions has made Bhaskar more cautious than I was when young but then again there have always been people like him looking to make a career on the left.

After warning his readers about the hazards facing the working class that range from neoliberal Singapore to neo-fascist Hungary, Bhaskar offers up a vision of socialism that probably wouldn’t frighten any but the most well-heeled NY Times reader:

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

Is socialism really an ideology of radical democracy? I suppose it is in the sense that the rule of the people entails the abolition of private property that has been undermining even bourgeois democracy over the past 30 years or so. As far as “civil society” being empowered to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives, this strikes me as an utterly amorphous formula. Civil society cannot begin to address the economic inequalities that allows both George Soros and the Koch brothers to control the electoral process. At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I would propose that it is high time for the left to begin raising one of Trotsky’s transitional demands:

The socialist program of expropriation, i.e., of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination, should in no case during the present transitional period hinder us from advancing, when the occasion warrants, the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence or of the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie.

Thus, in answer to the pathetic jeremiads of the gentlemen democrats anent the dictatorship of the “60 Families” of the United States or the “200 Families” of France, we counterpose the demand for the expropriation of those 60 or 200 feudalistic capitalist overlords.

In precisely the same way, we demand the expropriation of the corporations holding monopolies on war industries, railroads, the most important sources of raw materials, etc.

I would say that the call for nationalizing the railroads and the sources of raw materials will resonate with many Americans, given the miserable state of Amtrak and the damage that fracking does to our health. I may not use the same language as Leon Trotsky but advocate the left trying to figure out the way to say the same thing but in the words ordinary people understand.

By contrast, Bhaskar’s call for a worker-owned cooperatives competing in a regulated market sounds rather weak-tea by comparison. I doubt that any Fortune 500 company will care very much that, for example, the old Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago is now a worker-owned cooperative. It is not as if such an operation will not benefit the people who work there but it has nothing to do with challenging capitalist property relations. If, on the other hand, the left was powerful enough to make a difference, it would have pushed for the nationalization of the banking system in 2008.

How did the left become so impotent that it was not able to manifest its opposition to the economic system except by occupying public spaces in a rather noble but impotent gesture that anarchists argued as a “prefiguration” of the future communist world? It is a sad story that I have been telling since 1991 when I first got on the Internet. The Marxist left had a sectarian model that attempted to mechanically apply Bolshevism to the USA. We still need a party like Lenin built but it will have to emerge out of the mass movement that will be gathering momentum as capitalism continues to sink to new lows. A major step in building that movement will be creating an alternative to the Democratic Party that so many people still have illusions in, starting with the Jacobin editorial board.

US enforces its No Fly Zone over Rojava, leading to World War III …

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:19 am

Source: US enforces its No Fly Zone over Rojava, leading to World War III …

June 26, 2017

Lars Lih defends Kamenev and Stalin’s blue-pencilled Lenin

Filed under: Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

On John Riddell’s blog, there’s a very interesting but wrongheaded series of posts by Lars Lih that reveals how the editors of Pravda—Lev Kamenev and Josef Stalin—excised sentences from the first of Lenin’s Letters from Afar that was written on March 7th and signaled his decisive break with “old Bolshevism”, which had theorized a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. This slogan can be reduced to a call not for socialism, but for a government that while excluding bourgeois parties would preside over bourgeois property relations. In Lenin’s view, Russia could not proceed toward socialism until the workers had built a powerful social democratic party that resembled Kautsky’s in Germany. As long as feudal vestiges remained in Russia, especially the lack of constitutional democratic rights, the workers could not build up their strength.

Ironically, even though Lenin was moving rapidly toward an abandonment of “old Bolshevik” beliefs, he still retained some of the language, although in a profoundly dialectical manner, in the first letter:

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore, the workers must support the bourgeoisie, say the Potresovs, Gvozdyovs and Chkheidzes, as Plekhanov said yesterday.

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practised by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organisation, their own unity, and their own weapons.

A few paragraphs later in the letter, Lenin makes it clear that bourgeois property relations will not be respected by a newly conceived “revolutionary dictatorship”:

It [the Kerensky government] cannot give bread because it is a bourgeois government. At best, it can give the people “brilliantly organised famine”, as Germany has done. But the people will not accept famine. They will learn, and probably very soon, that there is bread and that it can be obtained, but only by methods that do not respect the sanctity of capital and landownership.

In the second post titled “Lenin’s ‘Letter from Afar,’ as printed in Pravda, March 21 and 22, 1917”, Lih provides an annotated version with references to the excised material in his post. So for example, you can read this in the second post, just as Lenin’s letter would have appeared to Pravda’s readers:

The conflict of these three forces determines the situation that has now arisen, a situation that is transitional from the first to the second stage of the revolution.

The above paragraph was a substitute for what was deleted by Kamenev and Stalin below:

The antagonism between the first and second force is not profound, it is temporary, the result solely of the present conjuncture of circumstances, of the abrupt turn of events in the imperialist war. The entire 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 has not succeeded in finishing off the tsarist monarchy, has already begun to make a deal with the landlord Romanov dynasty. The bourgeoisie of the Octobrist-Kadet 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.

This new government, in which Lvov and Guchkov of the Octobrists and Peaceful Renovation Party, yesterday’s abettors of Stolypin the Hangman, control the posts of real importance, the crucial posts, the decisive posts, the army and the bureaucracy—this government, in which Miliukov and the other Kadets serve mostly for decoration, for a signboard, for sugary professorial speeches, and the “Trudovik” Kerensky plays the role of a balalaika for gulling the workers and peasants.

It is important to note that the excised first of the Letters from Afar does not mention Kerensky once while Lenin’s unedited letter references him five times. Interestingly enough, the Russian edition of Lenin’s complete works, from which the Marxist Internet Archives derived its source material, provides a footnote that understands what the deletions were about even if Lars Lih does not. So even if the Communist publishers risked exposing the heavy hand of Stalin by providing such a footnote, they must have felt obliged to tell the truth—something Lih apparently can’t handle.



[1] The Pravda editors deleted about one-fifth of the first letter. The cuts concern chiefly Lenin’s characterisation of the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary lenders as conciliators and flunkeys of the bourgeoisie, their attempts to hide from the people the fact that representatives of the British and French governments helped the Cadets and Octobrists secure the abdication of Nicholas II, and also Lenin’s exposure of the monarchist and imperialist proclivities of the Provisional Government, which was determined to continue the predatory war.

The third of Lih’s posts tries to square the circle by portraying the deletions as necessary since Lenin essentially went overboard. Lenin was wrong in referring to Kerensky’s “verbal republicanism” and playing the role of a balalaika. Indeed, for Lih Kerensky embodied the spirit of the evolving proletarian dictatorship:

Lenin also misapprehended Kerensky’s role: his presence in the government was not due to right-wing forces who wanted a “balalaika.” On the contrary, Kerensky was deputed by the Petrograd Soviet as its representative in the government. Lenin’s mistake about Kerensky reflected a more fundamental misapprehension about the role of the Petrograd Soviet. In his tripartite map, Lenin placed Chkheidze and Kerensky directly in the camp of the liberal opposition while portraying the Soviet as already opposed to the new government. But in fact, Chkheidze and Kerensky were leaders of the Soviet, and their political influence came from solid majority support among the soviet constituency.

Keep in mind that on March 7th, when Lenin’s first letter was written, the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet did not have a single Bolshevik member. In contrast to the Petrograd Soviet that reflected the gradualist perspective of the Mensheviks and SR’s, the Vyborg District Bolsheviks were far to their left and even, according to Alexander Rabinowitch in “Prelude to Revolution”, Lenin himself. A week before Lenin wrote his letter, they introduced a motion to the Petrograd Soviet opposing the Provisional Government and its replacement by a revolutionary government led by socialists. The Petrograd Soviet rejected this proposal.

In fact, the Petrograd Bolshevik committee was much closer to Kerensky et al than it was to their Vyborg comrades. It adopted what Rabinowitch called a “semi-Menshevik” position that urged support for the Provisional Government as long as its policies were “consistent with the interests…of the people.”

In the first half of March, Pravda was both antiwar and hostile to the Provisional Government. However, all that changed after Kamenev and Stalin became the new editors. Alexander Rabinowitch describes how the paper changed. Everybody without a vested interest in elevating Kamenev and Stalin to a status they hardly deserve will immediately understand from this why they took a blue pencil to Lenin’s letter:

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.

June 24, 2017

Stone and Putin discuss the problem of gays in the shower room

Filed under: homophobia,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

Over the past week or so as I watched Oliver Stone’s interviews with Vladimir Putin, I took copious notes. I originally wanted to answer Putin’s propaganda on Ukraine and Syria but decided instead to hone in on the appalling exchange the two men had in a hockey rink about homosexuality. It is as much a commentary on Stone as it is on Putin. In a somewhat lame attempt to show that he didn’t care for bigotry, Stone included footage of gay rights supporters getting hassled by the Russian police but that hardly made up for him asking Putin about being on a submarine with a known homosexual. “Would there be any problem with that?”, asked Stone. Putin replied, “Well, I prefer not to go in the shower with him. Why provoke him?”, laughing heartily. He added, “But you know I am a judo master and a SAMBO master as well.” When I saw the reference to SAMBO, I wondered if first the Russian president was referring to the racist children’s tale but it turned out to be the acronym for SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya, which literally translates as “self-defense without weapons”, a martial arts practice the Red Army inaugurated in the 1920s.

What was Putin trying to say? That if some gay sailor tried to make a pass at him in the shower, he’d use his martial arts mastery to protect his heterosexual manhood? It reminds me of the old Burns and Schreiber taxi cab skit. Burns is a very macho passenger and Schreiber a typical Jewish cab driver back in the day when they were common. Somehow, the subject of ballet comes up and Burns assures Schreiber if he ever ran into a ballet dancer, he’d punch him out. This skit was from the early 60s and a pointed commentary on the bigotry that was universal at the time.

And why the fuck would Stone even ask such a stupid question to begin with? This is the same thing you heard to justify keeping gay and lesbian soldiers in the closet. And then after that, excusing professional sports homophobia. Scott Cooper, an out of the closet college football player, showed how absurd these worries were in an article on Generation Outsports:

Let’s first talk showers and football, since that seems to be a big concern for some players, especially in light of Michael Sam coming out. I played high school football for four years, and college football for three, and I was out to my teammates in college. After hours of hard practice in 105-degree August heat, I was hot, sweaty, sore, bruised, tired and hungry. Hitting on my teammates was the last thing on my mind. Never mind that they were like my brothers and weren’t my type; I just wanted nothing more than to rinse off the turf and sweat and get some Gatorade and grub.

Putin takes great pains to point out that there is no persecution of gays in Russia but defends the law that bans homosexual propaganda since it is meant to prevent teachers and the like from converting their students to an “alternative” life style in the same vein as Communist teachers being fired in the 50s so their students wouldn’t stop believing in capitalism. What stupidity. A 14 year old boy or girl knows what their sexual preferences are at that point and would not be susceptible to “propaganda”. And what would that mean, anyhow? Assigning them Allen Ginsberg poems?

Putin lays it on the line. As head of state, he sees his duty as upholding traditional values and family values. When asked by Stone what that entails, he replies that same-sex marriages will not produce children. “God has decided, and we have to care about birth rates in our country. We have to reinforce families.”

In a lame attempt to entice Putin into sounding less disgusting, Stone refers to the possibility that in a society with “dysfunctions”, there might be children in orphanages who need a more supportive environment, even if it is gay or lesbian parents that adopt them. He replies, “I cannot say our society welcomes that, and I’m quite frank about that.”

For me, the whole Russiagate question is a joke. I say that as someone who is sympathetic to Putin pointing out in the fourth and final episode of the interviews that the USA has meddled in Russian elections ever since the fall of the USSR, not to speak of a country like Nicaragua whose elections the CIA, the NED and other American agencies subverted with impunity.

However, what troubles me greatly is that many of the people who scream the loudest about the investigations pushed by the Democrats are aligned with Stone on the need to defend Putin tout court.

Why would the left find Putin so attractive? I think to some extent it is his animal magnetism that must have drawn Stone to him as well. When he is not asking Putin softball questions of the sort that Charlie Rose might ask Barack Obama, he is oohing and aahing over Putin’s physical assets. It resonates eerily with Ronald Reagan’s popularity among college boys who kept posters of the Gipper chopping wood at his ranch on their dormitory walls.

Is it possible that Oliver Stone has a thing about gays? Remember “JFK”, his dramatically compelling but ideologically nonsensical film blaming the “deep state” for killing his idol? One of the co-conspirators, according to Jim Garrison, was Clay Shaw who was played by Tommy Lee Jones as a stereotypical flamboyant homosexual. He and two other in the cabal are portrayed as “a trio of debauched New Orleans homosexuals who dress up like Marie Antoinette and Mercury and flog one another with chains” as John Weir pointed out in a NY Times article about Hollywood gay-bashing.

This homosexual phobia did not always exist in Russia. The late Leslie Feinberg, a lesbian and transgender activist who was a member of the Workers World Party that unfortunately veers toward Putinphilia, was an expert on the changes produced by a proletarian revolution.

The Russian Revolution breathed new life into the international sexual reform movement, the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement, and the revolutionary struggle as a whole in Germany and around the world.

It was a historic breakthrough when the Soviet Criminal Code was established in 1922 and amended in 1926, and homosexuality was not included as an offense. The code also applied to other republics, including the Ukrainian Republics. Only sex with youths under the age of 16, male and female prostitution and pandering were listed. Soviet law did not criminalize the person being prostituted, but those who exploited them.

All that changed under Stalin, who recriminalized homosexuality in 1933 with punishments up to 5 years. My friend, the artist Yevgeniy Fiks, wrote a book titled “Moscow” that incorporated a letter from a British CP’er named Harry Whyte that challenged the anti-homosexual laws that can be read on Ross Wolfe’s website. Whyte was quite eloquent:

But science has established the existence of constitutional homosexuals. Research has shown that homosexuals of this type exist in approximately equal proportions within all classes of society. We can likewise consider as established fact that, with slight deviations, homosexuals as a whole constitute around two percent of the population. If we accept this proportion, then it follows that there are around two million homosexuals in the USSR. Not to mention the fact that amongst these people there are no doubt those who are aiding in the construction of socialism, can it really be possible, as the March 7 law demands, that such a large number of people be subjected to imprisonment?

Just as the women of the bourgeois class suffer to a significantly lesser degree from the injustices of the capitalist regime (you of course remember what Lenin said about this), so do natural-born homosexuals of the dominant class suffer much less from persecution than homosexuals from the working-class milieu. It must be said that even within the USSR there are conditions that complicate the daily lives of homosexuals and often place them in a difficult situation. (I have in mind the difficulty of finding a partner for the sexual act, insofar as homosexuals constitute a minority of the population, a minority that is forced to conceal its true proclivities to one degree or another.)

I accept that many on the left admire Putin but I am content to be in a minority opposing him, especially since he has described Lenin as the worst thing that ever happened to Russia and because he has presided over a revival of Stalin-idolization in Russia that goes hand in hand with his ties to the Russian Orthodoxy. My idea of socialism owes a lot to the early days of the USSR when all sorts of social norms were being challenged, just as they were when I was in my 20s and the USA was boiling over with challenges to sexism, homophobia, racism and war. I can understand why Putin would be an object of Stone’s affection. There is a deep need for a father figure on the left in a time of great turbulence and that is certainly what Putin projects. For me, the 1950s and early 60s was a dreadful time when television shows like “Father Knows Best” were popular and when you could routinely hear men being referred to as “faggots”, even at a place like Bard College. I don’t care if I am the last person on the left to find Putin a symbol of bigotry and medieval backwardness. At this stage of the game, if I haven’t reached the point of having self-confidence in my own socialist values, I might as well cash it in.

June 23, 2017

Hitler and the Lone Wolf Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm


Before the opening titles roll for “13 Minutes”, we see a kneeling man in a suit and tie holding a flashlight in his mouth crouched down in some kind of tunnel, looking for all the world like an engineer fixing a faulty electrical circuit. We soon learn that he had gained access to the inside of a hollow pillar at the rear of the stage in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, Germany where Adolf Hitler launched his abortive “beer hall putsch” in 1923. The man was connecting a detonator to a massive pile of explosives and his goal was to blow Hitler to kingdom come during his speech later that day commemorating the putsch.

The date is November 8, 1939 and Georg Elser is a factory worker from an impoverished background preparing to do what the students of the White Rose group and the Operation Valkyrie Generals failed to do: overthrow the Nazi system. My first reaction to the film was to see it as a more nuanced and realistic version of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” but was stunned to discover after consulting Wikipedia 10 minutes into the film that it was based on historical events. George Elser was a real person and the attempt on Hitler’s life did take place. The führer managed to avoid being killed only because transportation snafus made it necessary for him to leave Bürgerbräukeller 13 minutes before the bomb went off.

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Cinema: Past and Present

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

A speech given by Andrzej Wajda at a conference on his work at the University of Lodz in 2001

As I thought about my speech for today, I chose not to give a lecture. Never in my life have I confronted so many experts on my work and I do not think it will happen to me again. So my anxiety is greater than ever and I have decided this should not be a speech but a confession.

I shall try to answer the question, what is national cinema today? Everything seems to show that national cinemas will survive and I have no doubt they will. But can they replace American cinema? For sure the influx of American film makes all European artists uneasy … but I do not think it can be replaced. American cinema will continue to play the same role it always has. Can national cinemas, then, develop alongside it? I think they can. And I believe they will survive. What makes me think so? First of all, production techniques have advanced and are much easier than they used to be in my day. It is impossible now to erect barriers of any kind preventing people from making films they want to make, whether it is through studies in film school, problems of financing or censorship. Anyone, director or cinematographer, can get a digital camera and make a film, just as the principles of Dogme95 proclaim, on what is happening around them. If what they have to say turns out to be interesting, the film will be distributed, maybe only to a handful of cinemas, but experience teaches us that such cinemas still want to show such films.

Since such a film will be shot in the native tongue, does language therefore play a fundamental role? This is another problem that should be considered for I have an impression that the world will not successfully unite through one language. People want to speak different languages, and attempts to impose a common language have been futile. Poland regained independence in 1918. The three partitioning powers taught in two languages. Some officers in the army — I still remember that — spoke two foreign languages. This entire body switched to Polish in no time, and it was not a problem to create a Polish administration. Our historical experience proves that a language cannot be imposed. Tradition and literature encourage people to watch national films, in national languages. I do not think, however, that we in Poland want to make amateur or semi-amateur films that are shown for a small audience in a few cinemas. I believe we should aim higher than that. Polish cinema after the war won the recognition of the world. Could it be similarly successful now? I have an impression that time, if you like, has formed a loop since 1945 and we have returned to the starting point. The Polish cinema of the last decade is in my opinion a bit like pre-war cinema. This judgement may be a bit harsh but since I make films too and my perception of my work over the last ten years is similar, please g make such a comparison. It is so easy to compare Quo Vadis (2001) with Josef Lejtes’ pre-war picture Under Your Protection (1933). Cezary Pazura’s role in contemporary cinema is parallel to that of Adolf Dymsza’s before the war. There are no films about elegant salons, but then there are no elegant salons. Instead, there are gangsters and films about gangsters nowadays in a way that corresponds to pre-war films about elegant salons.

So if this situation is typical, then is it indeed our desire to make national films, shown only in one country, for the people who want to see themselves on the screen and to hear their own language? Interestingly, the French, whose minds are much more Cartesian, have chosen not to defend national cinema on the principle of the free market but on the principle of a language quota. A bill has been adopted stipulating that only 60 per cent of all distributed films can be in any one language. The language was not specified but the 60 per cent restriction sets up a distinct barrier. Yet any attempt to restrict the role of the English language fails and I refuse to believe it can succeed. At the same time, when I look at united Europe and all its activities, I see a new Tower of Babel with a confusion of languages coming into being. Sometimes I have an impression that all Eurocrats get together at night, speak English and agree on what they will say in their native tongues in the morning. This means that national cinemas will continue to exist. The war in the Balkans, internal conflicts in various countries prove that people still want to speak languages that no one else knows and they believe it is of utmost importance.

Lately attempts have been made, especially because such things are profitable, to make films in co-operation with other countries: Germany and France, France and Poland, Poland and someone else etc. Special EU legislation has allowed for joint financing of such movies, yet also permitted their release as films of a given country. Soon, however, such films were being dubbed `Euro-puddings’: a kind of meal that is totally unpalatable. I have wondered whether the problem is that actors in such films often speak a language that is not their own. It seems to me, however, that we have a different problem here. It is not the problem of the language in which the actors speak but the language in which the director thinks. The director loses his footing when he is outside his own world and his own circle. He does not know whom he is talking to, does not know what his audience thinks. If I think in Polish, then I try to make what I do coherent. In a nutshell: I want to talk about myself. I have an impression it is the only way for the art of film.

Let me tell you briefly what the world was like when I was a child. It was very different. Constructivism and Futurism, great artistic movements, thrived; avant-garde art groups like Rytm and Blok were active. Representatives of these movements believed that they would root out irrationality, introduce sense into human existence and create a better future world. Yet soon after World War One, the demons of Fascism emerged, quickly followed by Stalinism, which did promise a better future though real life soon shattered such hopes. I am proud that Polish cinema addressed these two matters. It spoke out against the Nazi war and made films that challenged the lie of Stalinism. Let me tell you what my generation concentrated on. I remember that Jerzy Andrzejewski,2 who was always interested in all sorts of catchphrases and used them for his works, drew my attention to a saying that was popular in 1955 and 1956. When asked ‘How are things?’ you’d answer `Disastrous’. Our cinema made a subject out of those disasters. Let me quote Alfred de Musset’s poem Ode to Poland at this point:

Until that day, brave Poland, when you show us all some disaster greater than all
the ones before and wake us up — Poland, you will not find strength,
you will not wipe out indifference from our face.
It is your time, heroes, but fight on your own,
Europe never seems too eager to give help,
It prefers excitements that do not haunt at night,
Then fight, Poland, or perish — we are blasé.

I experienced this blase indifference when my second film, Kanal (1957), was shown at Cannes. The festival was very different from what it is now. The resort was half empty in the spring season before the summer influx began, and the festival had to attract rich, suave French audiences. Unlike today when no uniform style is required, ladies had elegant dresses and diamond jewellery; men wore dinner jackets. This was the audience who saw my film. What appeared in the Nice Matin newspaper the following day was more of a warning for the festival organisers than a critical review. The reviewer claimed that films in which people waded in the sewers must not be shown. The festival was addressed to elegant people who wished to see great art and did not want to wade in the sewers with Polish insurgents. The poem just recited and this story complement each other. We simply believed that as long as we had a message for the world, we had to expose our wounds, and to make it the subject of our films.

What did we think of pre-war cinema? We already knew what to think about it when we were at Film School. We still did not know what films we wanted to make but we knew full well we did not want to make the films that had been made before the war. We rejected the cinema represented by Dymsza or other pre-war trends on all counts, and we viewed critically the people who had created Polish pre-war cinema. I am thinking here about Wanda Jakubowska and Aleksander Ford:3 we perceived them as pre-war directors, not to mention Allan Starski’s father,’ who wrote scripts for Dymsza. We chose to create cinema from scratch. Of course we had our models. We watched the films of Italian Neorealism and were inspired by them. That was the world we wanted to show on screen, the world of poor people, because we were poor. It was very important that our voice was heard on the other side of the Iron Curtain too. We felt then that the Polish cinema had a duty not only to speak about itself but also to communicate with those on the other side in the Cold War. We wanted to speak with the voice of our neighbours who then still did not have their own cinemas or at least were not yet accorded recognition. I think our mission succeeded. Our war films showed the truth about the Polish `October’ in 1956 to those on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and later our films in August 1980 let the world know that something fundamental was happening in Poland.

The rhythm of a film was another thing that seemed important to me as a young director. We did not like Soviet cinema, not because of what it said but because of its slow tempo. Polish audiences felt the same. Unfortunately, great Soviet cinema, born in the 1920s, did not develop in the way its great directors expected it to. Hence we wanted our films to adopt the rhythms of Western films, because we thought it would keep us alive. And that is why Western audiences could watch our films — the rhythms were more animated and they captured the reality of our lives. Our national cinema was greatly supported at that time by other national cinemas or by outstanding people who had begun to create world cinema. American cinema was not at the top of all great achievements then. Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa were the big names, and we watched their films wanting to find their Polish equivalents. The audience for our films was the intelligentsia, the highly educated, as it was for the films of Bergman and Kurosawa. Even if someone like me did not have a full education, he tried to catch up by seeing those films. Communication was easy because our shared knowledge allowed us to make easy reference to history or to Greek mythology. There was a high degree of understanding between artist and audience. I have an impression things are different today, and it is more difficult to ascertain how to communicate with an audience. Then we reached out to the world, the world reached out to us, and intellectual audiences were the basis of our communication, and the aspirations of Polish cinema at that time clearly reflect this. In the 1960s Jerzy Kawalerowicz made Pharaoh (1966), a beautiful, original film which won worldwide acclaim, while Wojciech Has made The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), which Bunuel considered to be one of the best films in the world. There was a kind of community of cinephiles — film-makers and audiences alike who sought to understand the world. We worked hard for such an audience then and, unless one realises this, it is difficult to understand the situation of the cinema of that time.

Today most national cinemas are partly financed by the state. Even though funds may be rare, all European countries with their own film industries operate some system of subsidy. It is interesting that often the state used to have specific requirements in return for its money. Today, on the whole, the state gives the money but does not demand anything. Things should be better but, strangely, they are worse. What is more, cinema is at the mercy of television, which produces films but then relegates them to off-peak viewing times. On the one hand, it assists cinema: on the other its assistance is inadequate. The success bestowed by film festivals and awards, increasingly numerous, is illusionary. More and more frequently, films with awards are not put into distribution and there is no chance for audiences to see them. Next, more and more films are made in unknown or almost unknown languages, which breaks up even further what used to unite world cinema. Cinema has become a pastime. In Poland, young people between 15 and 25 are the largest audience. Those people are generally contented. They do not go to the cinema to share their pain in the way that the Polish intelligentsia of the previous generation watched our films. They are not burdened with the past. It is difficult to make historical films because these young people hardly have any sense of the past and are surprised to learn about some of the things their parents experienced. These young people have been brought up stress-free. But, equally important, cinema tickets are expensive so only the prosperous go to the cinema. A film about social problems requires a large audience because one would like to appeal to as many people as possible and to move them. But why should anyone make a social problem film today if only the well-heeled go to the cinema? To tell them that poverty exists? They know that and will not be moved by it. A new audience has arisen, creating a new kind of situation.

Let me move onto the saddest thing I want to say today. It turns out that Poles prefer to go to movie theatres in city centres. There is, for instance, a very good cinema dating back to the 1950s in Nowa Huta but no one goes there because everyone goes to see a film in one of the movie theatres in the centre of Cracow. But this cinema must bring in money, just like a supermarket, because otherwise the cinema will be knocked down and a supermarket will be built in its place. So if cinema owners want to stay on in the market, there is no way out for them. It is not only the matter of their personal preferences or that they do not like our films: if they want to have a cinema theatre in the city centre, and people only go to such cinemas, they must show films that would attract audiences. Meanwhile, let me return to the more general problem. The intelligentsia is in retreat. The ethos of the intelligentsia is disappearing. Educational qualifications are also different and require something different from young people. They do not unite them in the way they united us. Cinema for the well-heeled is a pastime and does not draw on the past or history. But this only means that things have become normal. This is what cinema audiences should be like. So why are we resentful then? Isn’t it what we fought for? I wonder, however, whether we have come back, so to speak, to the beginning, to the starting point. I wonder, and it is a sad thought, whether the Polish film school in 1956 came into being only to settle the accounts with the past and whether this painful confrontation about which the poem earlier speaks is not the only way for the art of Polish cinema; whether the disasters and suffering of our nation are not the only subject that we can share with the world outside and grab its attention? Yet maybe Polish cinema was born only to speak about the disasters of this nation.

I must say a few words about American cinema, even applaud it, as I think a war with American cinema is based on a misunderstanding. Firstly, the term ‘American cinema’ should not be used at all because it is too general. Americans make a great deal of films that may have something in common; some are splendid, magnificent productions whose message appeals to us all, while some are pure entertainment. I do not think those two trends should be confused. We should draw our own conclusions from it. American cinema has united that big country. Its diversity has made it possible to show individual endeavour and the need for self-reliance. It has illustrated the slogan ‘Act or perish’. Yet at the same time, American cinema also takes in European ideas. I can see references to European literature and thought in Spielberg’s latest film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). The fairytale magic that he exploits so beautifully also has European roots. This film is for me, I am ashamed to say, more European than Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2000). American films teach me one important lesson: the audience may disagree with the concept that the director offers but they must understand what the director has to say. Unfortunately, a great majority of European films are lost somewhere along the line between director and screen because the director thinks that his confused, unintelligible language is part of his message. In fact, it makes it impossible to understand the director’s ideas and as a result we only know that he is desperately trying to tell us something. That is why when I started working on Ashes and Diamonds (Popiot i diament, 1958), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was my inspiration. Few remember this film now but it is worth seeing. These were the films we wanted to make. It was beautiful; we were impressed by it. The final scene, when the gangster on the run returns home, lies down on the grass and the grazing horses come near him, is brilliantly unique. I have never seen such a scene. But I also mean the entire film, the way it was made, the inspiration it gave me. That is why I believe that I have to applaud American cinema — I owe it a great deal.

Let us, however, return to the situation at home. I have read Ryszard Kapugcirlski’s essay in Gazeta Wyborcza. Kapugchiski writes, ‘Man cannot live in the atmosphere of marginalisation, contempt, sense of inferiority but has the need for identity, identification, which is, in turn, difficult in a world that enforces migration as a result of inequality.’ Later on he says, ‘Our world is at a crossroads. A certain tendency seems inevitable: we will live in a multicultural world.’ In a way, we have always lived in a multicultural world but we were not aware of it because never before has the system of communication — via television, telephone or the internet — been so efficient. I draw a certain conclusion from the quotations I have given. As long as we really want to hold onto our place and our language, we must not renounce national cinema…

Cinema is not only spoken language. It is also an art of images. Here is an example I frequently use: the sequence showing Maciek Chelmicki’s death on a rubbish tip brings Ashes and Diamonds to a close. I have often been asked how it was possible that the film was released at all. Jerzy Andrzejewski’s party membership definitely helped; it would not have been possible otherwise. Regardless of that, for the censors who examined the film the message in the final scene could well have been that whoever rebels against the communist authorities ends up on the rubbish dump of history. Yet when the film was distributed the audience may well have thought, ‘Who are these authorities who kill our boy, a resistance fighter, on a rubbish tip? This isn’t right.’ Both interpretations were possible and that is why the film was released with this amazing scene. Still, a censor phoned me early in the morning of the release of Ashes and Diamonds and suggested the sequence should be cut out. I knew, however, that I could hold out a few more hours and then we, would see. We made it, the sequence stayed. I am saying this because I believe it is proof that national cinema, which speaks a verbal language no outsider would understand, may speak a language of images with such force that even censorship could not cope. I believe that the cinema of our times, a digital camera in the hands of the director, the Dogme rule that demands a film be contemporary and speaks to the living moment, the quest to use naturalistic language, are all powerful and make sense. Monopolies of both the state and the film industry lose their meaning as this contemporary type of film production develops. Our hopes for European cinema must surely go in this direction. This cinema will not become homogeneous because the audiences will remain diversified and certain films will be addressed only to certain groups. So original, often strange films will be made because artists will want to make them. Language will not play a major role because a film addressed to everyone will be in English, just as it was with Joan of Arc (1999) by Luc Besson, the French director who made his film in English to ensure a large audience. On the other hand, it is interesting that Schindler’s List (1993) is the only film about the Holocaust that has been seen throughout the entire world. We in Poland had made films about the same subject much earlier. They may not have been that bad and may have seized the attention of their audience but only a film made in English could give the world an abiding image of the Holocaust.

So what do I hope for as my life is coming to an end? I believe we should work on European films, national films. Ryszard Kapugciliski says that our European world will grow old but young, healthy barbarians will learn our language, fall in love with our past and our culture, and because of them our work is worth our while. As long as we bequeath to them what we should, those barbarians will create beautiful Polish art. I wholeheartedly count on it…


June 19, 2017

Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and terror: separating fact from fiction

Filed under: Islamophobia,terrorism — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

John Wight channeling the Henry Jackson Society

In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in London, you could hardly tell the difference between what Douglas Murray, the Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, wrote for Rupert Murdoch’s ultraright tabloid “The Sun” and John Wight’s article in CounterPunch. Murray is the author of the 2005 Neoconservatism: Why We Need It and a brand-new book titled The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam that can best be described as even more nativist than the National Front. As for the Henry Jackson Society, this is a think-tank that became infamous for its all-out support for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Murray’s article is patented “they hate us because of  our freedom”, a genre that blossomed fulsomely after 9/11:

At Wahhabi schools — known as madrasas — in the UK paid for by the Saudis, students are taught to hate the modern liberal West.

They are taught to despise and look down on us and our freedoms. The same message is taught at Wahhabi mosques across the world. The Saudis pay for the buildings and appoint the clerics.

Today across Europe there are thousands of such institutions of education and religion which exist because they are paid for by the Saudis.

We should have stopped the Saudis being allowed to spread their hatred here a long time ago. But a combination of greed for oil and fear of false charges of “Islamophobia” have stopped any British government to date from confronting this.

Last Wednesday we were reminded of where this disgusting ideology can lead. Perhaps now we can finally face it down. For all our sakes.

Here is John Wight doing an impeccable Douglas Murray impersonation in his June 6th article titled “London Terror Attack: It’s Time to Confront Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia”:

It is time for an honest conversation about Wahhabism, specifically the part this Saudi-sponsored ideology plays in radicalizing young Muslims both across the Arab and Muslim world and in the West, where in the UK people are dealing with the aftermath of yet another terrorist attack in which innocent civilians were butchered and injured, this time in London.

The most concerning development in recent years, however, vis-à-vis Saudi influence in the West, is the extent to which Riyadh has been funding the building of mosques as a way of promoting its ultra-conservative and puritanical interpretation of Islam, one completely incompatible with the 21st century.

In 2015 Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel came out in public and accused the Saudis of funding mosques in which extremism is regularly promoted. In an interview with the German magazine Bild am Sonntag, Mr Gabriel said, “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.”

We can assume that Wight must also endorse Gabriel’s January 19, 2017 call: “Salafist mosques must be banned, communities dissolved, and the preachers should be expelled as soon as possible.” What better way for public security to be guaranteed than to dissolve communities? One can imagine both Murray and Wight leading a throng of torch-bearing Christians determined to send the riffraff back to where they came from.

You might have noticed above that Gabriel refers to Salafist and Wahhabist mosques without bothering to distinguish between the two belief systems. At the risk of sounding like a pedant, it is worth making a distinction. Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth-century preacher and activist, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who lived through nearly the entire 18th century. It was similar in spirit to Hasidism for Jews and Calvinism for Christians, a literalist interpretation of sacred texts that demanded an austere lifestyle. Ironically, despite its medieval character, Wahhabism was seen as a “reform” movement in Islam that opposed the de facto sainthood of its leaders that involved pilgrimages to their tombs, etc. Long before the state of Saudi Arabia was created, the Saudi princes adopted Wahhabism as their official religion and imposed its rules on its subjects after taking power in 1932.

Salafism emerged at around the same time as Wahhabism and derives its name from advocating a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (the salaf). Scholars tend to believe that Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism, just as the Lubavitchers are a sect within Hasidism. For most Salafists, their religion is just a way of living a “holy” life. If Hasidism requires men to wear black suits and side-curls to enter heaven, Salafism has its own strictures such as forbidding tobacco, alcohol, playing cards and listening to music.

In its early years, Wahhabism was just as bloodthirsty as ISIS. In 1801, the Wahhabis sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq and acting as infidel-purging takfiri left 4,000 Shia Muslims dead. Of course, the Christians were no slouches themselves. During the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Orthodox Christians were persecuted across Eastern Europe. Polish Catholics killed up to 80,000 of their fellow Christians who did not follow the Pope. So cruel was the crusade against the infidels that the leader of the Orthodox church declared: “God perpetuate the empire of the Turks for ever and ever! For they take their impost, and enter no account of religion, be their subjects Christians or Nazarenes, Jews or Samaritians; whereas these accursed Poles were not content with taxes and tithes from the brethren of Christ…”

In the 20th century, religious wars became far less common. Mostly, they were about defending the “nation”, an act that cost far more lives even if the justifications were based on Enlightenment or even Marxist values. When it came to Saudi Arabia going to war to defend Wahhabist values, you’ll find little evidence of that. The wars had nothing to do with eradicating tobacco and everything to do with keeping the oil wells flowing such as when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. With little interest in the  Sunni faith it shared with the Iraqi rulers, some of whom have reappeared as ISIS members, Saudi Arabia supported George Bush’s war to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.

If you do a search on “Wahhabi” and “terror” in Lexis-Nexis, you will get links to 997 articles. All but 9 of them are dated after September 11th, 2001 and of those 9, not a single one refers to Saudi-sponsored terrorism. Three do refer to Russia’s justification for its war on the Chechens but I will cover that matter in a separate post dealing with Oliver Stone’s moronic interview with Vladimir Putin.

When 15 of the 19 hijackers were revealed to be Saudi citizens, the left—especially Michael Moore—jumped to the conclusion that the royal family was behind 9/11. This conspiracy theory was not driven by a class analysis of the Saudi state and its deep tentacles in the imperialist system both economically and militarily but by a kind of amalgam between the Wahhabi beliefs of the men who carried out the attack and their patron Osama bin-Laden.

What complicates this interpretation is the fact that despite their Saudi citizenship, they were from Yemenite tribes whose territory was seized by Saudi Arabia in a 1934 war having more to do with state formation than religion. Like the Mexicans who lived in the southern part of Texas, the people of this region resented the powerful nation that had absorbed it through military conquest. Although most of the story is reported in Akbar Ahmad’s “The Thistle and the Drone” that I wrote about last year in a piece titled “Was Saudi Arabia behind 9/11?”, you can find other references that bear this analysis out such as an article that appeared in the March 3, 2002 Boston Globe. Despite the title (“Why bin Laden plot relied on Saudi hijackers”), the article makes clear that 12 of the 15 Saudis were from the southwest region of Asir that manifested “deep tribal affiliations” and suffered “economic dis-enfranchisement”. Reporter Charles M. Sennott describes life in Saudi Arabia’s hinterlands, which have very little to do with the opulence of those who ruled over it no matter the shared Wahhabi faith:

The path to understanding this culture which bore the hijackers – almost none of whom had any deep links to Islamic militant movements much before Sept. 11 – lies somewhere along this road. On maps it is ”Highway 15,” but to Saudis it is commonly known as ‘”The Road of Death.’” Stretching south from the lowlands around Mecca into Taif and the woodlands of Al Baha province, and then climbing up to the mountains of Asir, it is considered the most dangerous road in a kingdom which officials say has an extraordinarily high rate of fatal car crashes. Highway 15 alone claims hundreds of lives every year, and thus its name.

It has become known as a strip of asphalt where disaffected, middle-class Saudi youth climb into large American-manufactured Buicks and Chevrolets and race at speeds over 120 miles per hour. They say it is a way to vent their rage against the limited economic opportunities in the kingdom as well as the crushing boredom and confining strictures of life under Saudi puritanism.

Interestingly enough, the pilot of the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon was exactly the sort of Saudi youth who was trying to lift himself up out of this morass. Hani Hanjour was 29 years old when he took part in the 9/11 attack but his flying skills originally had nothing to do with jihad. He was a frustrated young Saudi who trained to become a pilot for the Saudi national airline but could not land a job. Sennott reports:

His frustration at failing to get the job he dreamed of derailed him for nearly a year, his friends said. He spent hours online at a family-owned Internet cafe. He read voraciously about piloting, and increasingly turned his attention toward religious texts and cassette tapes of militant Islamic preachers.

Al Watan, a newspaper in the Asir region, was far more probing than the mainstream press in its investigative reports on the local youth who joined the 9/11 plotters. It is to Sennott’s credit to cite Al Watan’s reporting and how bin Laden tapped into the deep-seated resentments of the Asiri tribes that were as ready to make war on Riyadh as they were on Washington, even more so:

US and Saudi officials say they believe bin Laden exploited the Saudis, paying particular attention to their tribal backgrounds, and convincing them that they would be making their tribes proud in the jihad against America. On the videotape, bin Laden pointedly boasts of the names of the tribes, repeating the name Alshehri seven times, and also the Alghamdi and Alhazmi tribes on several occasions.

Bin Laden knew that selecting these families from the southwest would send a message to the monarchy and the ”Naj’dis” – elitist families from the center of the country who savor their connections to royalty and tend to look down upon the southwest’s tribal culture as primitive. US and Saudi officials suggest that bin Laden was letting that elite know he had deep support in the southwest for his jihad against the United States. But more ominously for the palace, the sources add, bin Laden was letting it know he had support for his oft-stated desire to dethrone the House of Saud, because of what he sees as its corruption and its treasonous ties to the United States.

Not only did bin Laden disavow the Saudi rulers politically, he had built a network called al-Qaeda based on the religious and political beliefs of a man that built a movement regarded as their mortal enemy. With all the facile attempts to blame Wahhabism for the 9/11 attacks, there is overwhelming evidence that it was inspired by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian poet and Islamist theorist who led the Muslim Brotherhood in the 50s and 60s. Qutb was devoted to the idea that Muslims had to launch a jihad against its enemies. When he came to study in the USA in 1948, he was repelled by the churches that he saw as “entertainment centers and sexual playgrounds.” I guess he had the foresight to anticipate Jimmy Swaggart et al.

He returned to Egypt in 1951 where he joined the Brotherhood. In 1954, he and his comrades were rounded up by Nasser just as has happened under General al-Sisi more recently. Qutb spent 10 years in prison. After being released in 1964, he was rearrested in 1965 after the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser. He was tortured before being brought to trial and then hanged on August 29, 1966.

Qutb was above all political. He was for Salafist values but that was not enough. If you were a devout Muslim, you had struggle against the corrupt oil sheikhs and nationalist dictators, either Wahhabist like the Saudi royal family or secular like Nasser or al-Assad. In an article on Qutb that appeared in the October 31, 2001 Guardian, Robert Irwin described bin Laden’s attraction to Qutb’s idea of jihad:

In the context of that global programme, the destruction of the twin towers, spectacular atrocity though it was, is merely a by-blow in al-Qaida’s current campaign. Neither the US nor Israel is Bin Laden’s primary target – rather it is Bin Laden’s homeland, Saudi Arabia. The corrupt and repressive royal house, like the Mongol Ilkhanate of the 14th century, is damned as a Jahili scandal. Therefore, al-Qaida’s primary task is to liberate the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from their rule. Though the current policy of the princes of the Arabian peninsula seems to be to sit on their hands and hope that al-Qaida and its allies will pick on someone else first, it is unlikely that they will be so lucky.

As for the spate of ISIS-inspired or sanctioned terrorist attacks in Europe and the USA, there is little connection to al-Qaeda, which has not been known in recent years for the sort of atavistic attacks on civilians that occurred on 9/11. In 2014, al-Qaeda disavowed any ties to ISIS and its franchise in Syria has had numerous armed confrontations with the group, especially in Qalamoun where dozens of ISIS members were arrested or killed in May, 2015.

This leaves us with the question of ISIS’s ideological roots. It combines Qutb’s apocalyptic worldview with Salafist orthodoxy but its wanton terrorist attacks on civilians has little to do with Islamist groups in the Middle East except for Hamas that used to set off bombs in Israel restaurants and buses in an ill-conceived response to Israeli state terror.

To understand ISIS, you simply have to extrapolate its tactics in Iraq during the American occupation when suicide bombers were targeting Shia mosques on a regular basis. These methods were associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who sought to turn a war against American occupation into a Sunni-Shia war. It was his barbarian beheadings, car bombs and other forms of terror that made it impossible for anti-imperialist fighters to build a united front. It was al-Zarqawi’s ruthless occupation of Sunni cities following the same pattern as ISIS today in Mosul and Raqqa that made it possible for the American military to persuade tribal leaders to join General David Petraeus’s Anbar Awakening.

Like many of the low-lives who have stepped forward to knife people out for an evening stroll or to drive vans into their midst, al-Zarqawi had nothing in common with a figure like Sayyid Qutb. In a profile for Atlantic magazine, Mary Anne Weaver reported on his youthful days in Jordan:

Everyone I spoke with readily acknowledged that as a teenager al-Zarqawi had been a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp in Zarqa’s underworld. He was disruptive, constantly involved in brawls. When he was fifteen (according to his police record, about which I had been briefed in Amman), he participated in a robbery of a relative’s home, during which the relative was killed. Two years later, a year shy of graduation, he had dropped out of school. Then, in 1989, at the age of twenty-three, he traveled to Afghanistan.

Although al-Zarqawi left all this behind when he arrived in Afghanistan to join the jihad, there is little evidence that he ever became much of a Wahhabist except to follow the same austere strictures as everyone else. Mostly his ambition was to be a fighter and in this he  succeeded. Based on his military prowess and leadership abilities, he was able to put together one of the more formidable anti-occupation militias called al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. This group undoubtedly spawned ISIS as should be clear from this incident reported by Weaver:

Al-Zarqawi courted chaos so that Iraq would provide him another failed state to operate in after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He became best known for his videotaped beheadings. One after the other they appeared on jihadist Web sites, always the same. In the background was the trademark black banner of al-Zarqawi’s newest group: al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. In the foreground, a blindfolded hostage, kneeling and pleading for his life, was dressed in an orange jumpsuit resembling those worn by the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Al-Zarqawi’s first victim was a Pennsylvania engineer named Nicholas Berg. In the video, five hooded men, dressed in black, stand behind Berg. After a recitation, one of the men pulls a long knife from his shirt, steps forward, and slices off Berg’s head.

What accounts for such madness? Is it Wahhabism or is it the brutality that became so universal in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of which did not take the form of beheadings but Russian and American air power that dropped high explosives on lightly armed fighters and civilians with impunity? In Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia”, he explains Pol Pot as the logical outcome of dropping more tons of explosives in Indochina than the total dropped by the combined air forces during WWII:

This bombing went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible, psychological damage. So, five years of bombing…and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.

Social science might look for patterns in these sorts of genocidal spasms that coincide with an all-out war when civilized norms go by the wayside. That might explain the Khmer Rouge as well as setting off a bomb while teenaged girls are leaving an Ariana Grande concert.


Just about 10 years ago, CounterPunch published an article titled “The Wahhabis are Coming, the Wahhabis are Coming!” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2007/10/27/the-wahhabis-are-coming-the-wahhabis-are-coming/) that holds up rather well. It makes a rather good retort to John Wight, who has succumbed to the Islamophobia the author was diagnosing. Here are the more salient points but I urge you to read the entire article.

Although I will not suggest that this rhetoric is hegemonic, there can be no doubt that the idea of a ‘Wahhabi Conspiracy’ against the ‘West’ has, since 9/11, become lodged in the colloquial psyche of many in the US and beyond. The collective argument, however, can be reduced to three pieces of ‘evidence’:

1) Usama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 highjackers were Saudi Arabians;

2) Saudi Arabia funds Wahhabi madrasas (schools), masjids (mosques) and imams (preachers) from South East Asia to Europe and North America, creating an ideologically and operationally coherent ‘network’ in which Al-Qaeda plays a leadership role; and,

3) Wahhabism is not only ‘puritanical,’ it is ‘militantly anti-Western.’ In short, Wahhabism is identified as the theology behind ‘Islamo-fascism.’

Yet, there are a number of glaring omissions in this perspective, beginning with the fact that the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia–the sole state sponsor of Wahhabism–routinely issue decrees condemning jihad against the European and North American states, while Usama bin Laden has vociferously castigated renowned clerics (including Wahhabis) as ‘slaves of apostate regimes’ like Saudi Arabia.

As well, although Saudi Arabian funds have been used to establish various religious institutions across the globe, not only are they in the minority from state to state, but the most militant madrasas, etc., are not Saudi funded or Wahhabi in intellectual orientation. For example, in Pakistan (noted by the above governmental, media and pseudo-academic sources as a breeding ground for militant Wahhabism), an International Crisis Group study conducted in 2002, found that ninety percent of the madrasas catering to one and half million students, were proponents of South Asian ‘Deobandi’ or ‘Barelvi’ thought, while the remaining ten percent could be shared between ‘Jama’at-i Islami’ (Maududian), ‘Shi’a’ and Wahhabi organizations. The handful of madrasas promoting militancy (including the Taliban Movement) are not Wahhabi, but Deobandi, and their initial funding came from the US during the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989), extending to textbooks produced by USAID and Ronald Reagan’s reference to their students as ‘the moral equivalent of the founding fathers [of America].’ Even a recent USAID report (2003) acknowledges that the link between madrasas and violence is ‘rare,’ and the same perspective has been forwarded to the US Congress in at least two Congress Research Services reports updated in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

The most damning indictment of the non-scholarly perspective, however, is the fact that Al-Qaeda’s leadership is well known in scholarly circles to have been largely inspired by the ideology of Sayyid Qutb (d.1966), a late leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, while within the ‘Salafi’ fold, the Brotherhood, Wahhabism, Qutbism, Deobandism and Maududism, differ on issues as fundamental as the defensive or offensive nature of jihad, the legitimacy of ‘suicide bombings’ and civilian targets, the status of women, the legitimacy of electoral politics, nationalism, Pan-Islamism, Shi’ism and Sufism in Muslim society.

June 18, 2017

Qatar: The strange fall guy for the regional counterrevolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

Source: Qatar: The strange fall guy for the regional counterrevolution

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