Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 30, 2017

The Square

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

Among the batch of DVD’s received from Magnolia, a film distribution company specializing in edgy independent films, was one called “The Square” that I nearly discarded since I assumed that it was the very fine documentary about Tahrir Square. I probably should have remembered that the film was made in 2013. Sigh, how time flies when you’re not having fun.

Instead, this is a new Swedish narrative film currently being shown at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center that is wickedly entertaining. Directed by  Ruben Östlund, it stars Claes Bang as Christian, the director of an ultra-modern art museum that is the Swedish version of the Whitney in N.Y. It is a combination of a morality tale and satirical sketches only loosely connected to the plot.

At a dinner party celebrating the opening of a show titled “The Square” that is based on liberal bromides about people trusting each other, a muscular bare-chested performance artist named Oleg begins stalking the men and women in formal wear as if he were a chimpanzee. He walks on all fours using a device that is attached to his arms and makes his ape-like perambulations both realistic and frightening. His lower teeth protrude from his lips giving every indication that they are capable of tearing off a piece of flesh. He was hired for the event to supposedly educate the crowd about not allowing someone’s appearance to prejudge their worth. Oleg, I should add, is played by Terry Notary who trained the actors in the recent round of Planet of the Apes films how to move.

At first, he seems harmless, walking around sticking his finger in a tuxedoed man’s ear or jumping on top of a table and howling. As his behavior becomes more threatening, a hush descends on the gathering that is clearly becoming worried about what Oleg will do next. When he squares off against the largest man there in an imitation of the kind of alpha male rivalry that takes place in chimpanzee bands, it results in the man fleeing for his life. It has begun to dawn on the wealthy liberals there that Oleg has jumped the shark.

In another scene, Christian—who is the homo sapiens version of the dominant male in a chimpanzee band—hooks up with an American reporter for a one-night stand. (She is played by Elisabeth Moss, best known for playing Peggy Olson in “Mad Men”.) While waiting for her in bed, he spots an actual chimpanzee walking nonchalantly around the living room where he finally takes a seat on the sofa and begins thumbing through an art journal. It is a perfect moment.

We also see a British artist who is apparently based on Julian Schnabel, one of the biggest assholes in the art world, giving a talk to the same kinds of people in a private lecture at the museum. It is likely they are major donors. I was puzzled by the artist wearing pajamas as he lectures the audience but learned just as I began writing this review that Schnabel is in the habit of giving speeches in pajamas as well. As he begins his pompous and meaningless explanation of his work, someone in the audience begins yelling “asshole”, “scumbag”, “get the fuck out of here”, etc. every 30 seconds or so. When people in the audience begin to murmur nervously, someone pipes up that the poor fellow has Tourette’s and should be tolerated. That, of course, allows him to continue his assault on the artist. We are left wondering whether it is the Tourette’s speaking or just him sounding off on a self-important idiot.

I should add that the real Julian Schnabel gets taken down in a documentary in the same spirit as “The Square”. Titled “Guest of Cindy Sherman”, it can be rented for $3.99—a bargain at twice the price.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Christian’s attempt to retrieve his wallet, smartphone, and cufflinks that were pickpocketed from him in a con game near the museum. When his assistant discovers the stolen phone’s signal in a housing project obviously occupied by the very people the upcoming show is supposedly designed to solidarize with, the two go there late at night to put flyers in the mailbox of all the residents demanding the return of his property or else. He eventually regains the property but also the unwelcome attention of a swarthy 11-year old boy who demands that he apologize for accusing him of theft. After seeing the flyer, his parents assumed that he was the guilty party and punished him. The youth has a way of putting Christian on the defensive and making his hypocrisy about human solidarity painfully obvious.

Ruben Östlund’s last film was “Force Majeure” that dealt with a similar theme, the moral failings of a handsome and successful man who abandons his wife and children when an avalanche plows into the ritzy ski resort they are vacationing in. His work is not overtly political but it sheds light on the tendencies of bourgeois society to make us act like animals. Indeed, despite the argument that we are a step ahead of our ancestors the chimpanzee, one might conclude that we come in a distant second-best.

December 29, 2017

The Fearless Benjamin Lay

Filed under: Counterpunch,religion,slavery — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm


A decade ago I reviewed “Amazing Grace”, a hagiographic biopic about William Wilberforce, the parliamentary opponent of the slave trade in Great Britain. Since I am far more interested in a film’s politics than tracking shots, I saw it as an opportunity to cut Wilberforce down to size:

The film was meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the passing of the bill that banned the slave trade in the British Empire, an event that constitutes the climactic scene.

What it does not make clear is that the bill did not abolish slavery itself, which would persist in Jamaica and other British colonies for another 30 years. When younger and more militant abolitionists pressed Wilberforce to enter legislation to that effect, he replied that because of the effect “which long continuance of abject slavery produces on the human mind…I look to the improvement of their minds, and to the diffusion among them of those domestic charities which will render them more fit, than I fear they now are, to bear emancipation.” In other words, the slaves were not ready for their freedom.

If my goal was to cut Wilberforce down to size, this article seeks to demonstrate that Benjamin Lay, a working-class hunchback dwarf born 72 years before, was a giant when it came to abolitionism. Unlike Wilberforce, Lay was a radical who demanded that the Quaker elite free their slaves and take a principled stand against slavery when the peculiar institution was far more in the interests of a rising empire than during Wilberforce’s years in Parliament when free trade was being adopted during the rise of economic liberalism.

Continue reading

December 27, 2017

Meyerowitz’s Stories: (New and Selected)

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm

Working my way systematically through the wheelbarrow full of DVD’s received from studio publicists in reverse order of preference, I finally got around to “Meyerowitz’s Stories: (New and Selected)” that was written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Since I despised his 2010 “Greenberg”, I wasn’t expecting much. Suffice it to say that I hated the new one twice as much. For those who want to spend 90 minutes as painful as a trip to the dentist, you can also see the film on Netflix.

In a nutshell, “Meyerowitz’s Stories” is a laughless comedy about Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a snobbish but underachieving elderly sculptor and Bard College retiree, and his three grown children that—paraphrasing Tolstoy—are each unhappy in their own way. Danny (Adam Sandler) is a perennial loser rapidly advancing toward middle age who hopes to crash at his father’s upper west side townhouse until he finds some new dead-end job. His stepbrother Matthew (Ben Stiller) has just arrived in New York from Los Angeles to advise Harold on selling the townhouse and the sculptures warehoused there. Any prospective buyer would have to pay for the artwork even though the market for them is nil. Matthew, a big-time financial adviser to celebrities, is highly successful in conventional terms but a disappointment to Harold who expected him to follow in his footsteps. Finally, there is their sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who is the least developed as a character. Considering the amount of venom spewed at the two brothers, she gets off easy.

Ultimately, the film is simultaneously an examination of how worshipping the bitch goddess success can cripple people psychically and—ironically—proof of how Noah Baumbach has become successful in mastering exactly that pursuit. Like Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, it is a drama that invites us to laugh contemptuously at its characters even if its creator has both feet in this world. It is the world of trendy restaurants, gallery openings, country homes, expensive colleges, and all the other benefits of “making it”. The dysfunctional, shallow, and grubbing characters in the Meyerowitz klan are not that different from prototypical, educated, middle-class N.Y. Times readers, especially those who rely on the arts and leisure sections to refine their tastes.

Two days ago, when I told a couple of friends from my Bard College years that I loathed the film, they were surprised. Since Baumbach obviously put the grubby characters in the worst possible light, how could I not enjoy seeing them laid low? Since then, I have given that a lot of thought and included a review of “The Squid and the Whale”. That 2005 film is very close to the new one thematically and is drawn, like it, from Baumbach’s own family’s tale of woe.

Born in 1969, Noah Baumbach is the son of novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown. Their bitter separation is the subject of the 2005 “The Squid and the Whale” that starred Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as Bernard and Joan Berkman, a couple of writers modeled on the director/screenwriter’s parents. Their teen-aged son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) are based on the director and his younger brother Nico, who teaches film at Columbia University. These are people richly endowed in academic capital as Pierre Bourdieu would have put it: “Academic capital is, in fact, the guaranteed product of the combined effects of cultural transmission by the family and cultural transmission by the school (the efficiency of which depends on the amount of cultural capital directly inherited from the family).”

Like Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an unlikeable Jonathan Baumbach in his 80s in the new film, Jeff Daniels plays the same kind of lout–an intellectual snob and self-regarding twit who has the nerve to describe Franz Kafka as his “predecessor”. The director’s real-life father is a study in how a career in the literary world can be as competitive as the hedge fund business. He was a professor at a number of universities, including Brooklyn College from 1966 until his retirement in 2000. He also wrote film reviews for Film Culture and Partisan Review. When he wasn’t running the MFA program at Brooklyn College or reviewing films, he was writing novels in a distinctly postmodernist style that has been compared to William Gaddis.

After publishing two novels that were likely in the remainder bins after a year or so, he hit a wall with his third that was rejected by 32 different publishers. In “The Squid and the Whale”, you see his character reading a rejection letter. That led Jonathan Baumbach to start a non-profit publishing company called Fiction Collective 2 that was geared to experimental literature and funded in part by the University of Utah, the same school that is a host to the Marxism mailing list.

By normal standards, this would be considered a success but in his son’s screenplay, the father is depicted as a total loser. His wife’s cheating, which led to the separation, humiliates him but less so than her new-found literary success. When the Berkmans meet with the principal of Walt’s school to discuss his psychological problems that have been exacerbated by his parents’ warfare over joint custody arrangements, he is stung to hear her being complimented by the principal for her latest short story in the New Yorker as they depart.

As Noah Baumbach’s father, Jeff Daniels is a class-A prick. He shacks up with his 20-year old writing student and even gives signals to Walt, the stand-in for Noah Baumbach, that it is okay if he wants to fuck her. You have to wonder if this was autobiographical or fiction. In either case, it makes the father look like someone who transgressed professional ethics. At one point, he confides in Walt about a writing assignment the student turned in that supposedly was really about her vagina. Did Jonathan Baumbach ever have such a conversation with his son about his female students? Or is this just character assassination that helps to bind the audience psychologically with the director? Oddly enough, the parents accepted being savaged in the film because it obviously put them in the limelight. This was exactly the same strategy followed by Lena Dunham in her film “Tiny Furniture” that opened the doors to HBO producing “Girls”. Unlike Noah Baumbach, Dunham cast her own mother in the clearly autobiographical film

It is not that surprising that Baumbach’s parents embrace a film that is so sadistic. In the same way that they have prospered in the accumulation of academic capital, their son’s celebrity is a feather in their cap. Nominated for the best original screenplay, “The Squid and the Whale” must have made the author’s parents proud. The conclusion to the New Yorker review supports that conclusion:

The plot hinges on Walt’s rediscovery of his love for her [the mom]; Baumbach, in the end, holds out the possibility that Walt, at least, will see his parents as neither gods nor monsters but as screwed-up, very foolish adults. The movie is proof that Walt grew into a man.

Whatever ambivalence Baumbach had toward his father has almost completely evaporated in “The Meyerowitz Stories”. Harold Meyerowitz is a grotesque figure, almost constantly talking about how great he is even if it is abundantly clear that he is a minor figure in the art world (but major enough to buy a townhouse). When he goes to an opening at the MOMA for an old friend named L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), he is shocked to discover that he has not been invited to the private showing. When he reminds the young woman at the reception desk that he is Harold Meyerowitz, she—like most of the world—has no idea who he is. At the last minute, Shapiro spots him from afar and ushers him in to catch up on old times. Unlike Meyerowitz, he is a mensch and more interested in how he is doing than bragging about his own success.

Later in the film, Meyerowitz has his own retrospective at Bard College. The contrast could not be sharper. Bard College is not MOMA. It is a holding a commemorative show for a professor emeritus that will certainly not be covered by the NY Times. Consider the equation: the good-hearted Shapiro and the top-drawer MOMA on one side and on the other Meyerowitz the insufferable egotistical loser and Bard College. For Noah Baumbach, the ultimate sin is being second rate but pretending that you are first-rate. For those of us who hate elitism of any sort, the director’s agenda is just as rancid as those he is ridiculing.

There’s a good reason why court jesters targeted the king. Humor is always best served by punching upwards like Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain did. Although I had a visceral dislike for the father figure in both “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Meyerowitz Stories”, my real animus was fixed on the author of the screenplays who exploited his father’s obvious deficiencies to make NY Times writers and readers feel superior.

It reminded me very much of another autobiographical work that was lionized in the NY Times, a book written by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, the son of a long-time Socialist Workers Party member. Titled “When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood”, it makes his parents look as uncaring and as grotesque as Noah Baumbach’s. There’s a scene in this memoir where the father takes the son out to dinner and is appalled when his father orders chardonnay at a restaurant, only to discover that it is a white rather than a red wine. Even worse, he makes a scene at the restaurant until they exchange it for a red. During the entire dinner, the father pontificates about world politics, as he is prone to do. For Saïd, he is “a socialist missionary among proletarian savages, and all intercourse presents itself as an opportunity for conversion.” After relating his annoyance over being forced to endure his father’s rhetoric for an hour, Saïd offers up the perfect coda for a miserable evening: “Then my father spills the red wine down his shirt.” What could be worse than a Marxist with a wine-stained shirt?

The NY Times found the memoir “amazingly even-handed and even somewhat nostalgic about his blasted childhood.” One wonders how long it will take for Hollywood to buy the rights to “When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood” for a film treatment by Noah Baumbach. A match made in hell.


December 26, 2017

How a Russian troll sucker-punched CounterPunch

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a startling article titled “Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options” that begins:

The first email arrived in the inbox of CounterPunch, a left-leaning American news and opinion website, at 3:26 a.m. — the middle of the day in Moscow.

“Hello, my name is Alice Donovan and I’m a beginner freelance journalist,” read the Feb. 26, 2016 message.

The FBI was tracking Donovan as part of a months-long counterintelligence operation code-named “NorthernNight.” Internal bureau reports described her as a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls seeking to undermine America’s democratic institutions.

Her first articles as a freelancer for CounterPunch and at least 10 other online publications weren’t especially political. As the 2016 presidential election heated up, Donovan’s message shifted. Increasingly, she seemed to be doing the Kremlin’s bidding by stoking discontent toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and touting WikiLeaks, which U.S. officials say was a tool of Russia’s broad influence operation to affect the presidential race.

“There’s no denying the emails that Julian Assange has picked up from inside the Democratic Party are real,” she wrote in August 2016 for a website called We Are Change. “The emails have exposed Hillary Clinton in a major way — and almost no one is reporting on it.”

Since the article is behind a paywall, I have appended it to the bottom of this post.

While the article starts off on Jeff’s initial encounter with Donovan, it then changes gear and relates how the Obama administration dropped the ball on countering what it calls “disinformation”.

For example, it mentions that a State Department official named Richard Stengel was unable to pump episodes of “Game of Thrones” into Russia. This failure was equated to bringing a tiny, little Swiss Army knife to a gunfight. It is not exactly clear what difference that escapist fantasy would make on Russian politics but in fact it had already shown up on REN-TV, a private station owned by self-professed liberals that has a far greater reach than RT has in the USA.

They return to Jeff in the concluding paragraphs:

In late November, The Post informed Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch’s editor, that the FBI suspects that Donovan is a Russian government persona. St. Clair said in an interview that Donovan’s submissions didn’t stand out among the 75 or so pitches he receives each day.

On Nov. 30, he sent her an email saying he wanted to discuss her work. When he got no response, St. Clair followed up with a direct message on Twitter, asking her to call him immediately.

On Dec. 5 Donovan finally replied by email: “I do not want to talk to anyone for security reasons.”

St. Clair tapped out a new message, begging her to provide proof — a photograph of her driver’s license or passport — that would show that she was the beginning freelance journalist she claimed to be in her introductory email from 2016.

“It shouldn’t be that difficult to substantiate,” he wrote.

He has yet to receive a response.

You can now read a response to the Post article on CounterPunch co-written by Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank that is much more gripping than any spy novel written by Eric Ambler. Titled Go Ask Alice: the Curious Case of “Alice Donovan”,  it grapples with puzzles even harder to solve than why Russia sponsored ads during the 2016 elections that took both sides of a hotly debated issue like immigration. Can you imagine the Voice of America broadcasting the pro and con side of Pussy Riot or homophobia in Russia? I can’t.

Essentially, Alice Donovan was submitting the same types of articles that have appeared a million times in CounterPunch, Consortium News, the Nation, AlterNet, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, The Independent, the Boston Globe, et al from the liberal to radical left. You can also read the same analysis on the right, from David Horowitz to David Duke. Did the Kremlin think that her pro-Assad articles would make a difference in the battle for ideas that people like me lost 4 years ago? If so, then it is not the master of dezinformatsiya that the Post article would have you believe. Indeed, the main threat to democracy in the USA is not the Russian-backed troll farms or RT.com. It is the iron grip on the media from the Clintonista NY Times and Washington Post on one side and the Murdoch-type media on the other. The one missing perspective on Syria or Ukraine—two of the supposedly critical terrains of geopolitical struggle—is based on class. Did you think that either the New York Review of Books or the New York Post had any interest in reporting on the class contradictions of Syria in 2011? You have to be fucking kidding.

Much of the article deals with the question of determining the identity of Alice Donovan, who the FBI identified as a Russian operative. How exactly is someone like Jeff St. Clair supposed to track this down? I was shocked to see that he has to deal with 75 submissions a day. If he was responsible for making sure that some pro-Assad article was being written by a real “anti-imperialist”, whose numbers exceed the grains of sand on the Coney Island beach, rather than someone operating out of a Moscow basement, there would be no CounterPunch. In fact, I read through my submissions at least 3 times on Thursday to catch any typos because I don’t expect Jeff to do it. Even then, I miss them occasionally to my chagrin.

Maybe if CounterPunch was funded to the same degree as Truthout or AlterNet, this would be possible. For the fiscal year 2015-2016, Truthout reported income of $1,244,266 to the IRS while AlterNet operated on a budget of $1,825,395.00 last year. CounterPunch’s annual fund-drive this year amounted to $75,000 for comparison’s sake. Meanwhile, there are usually over 50 articles a week on CounterPunch whose provenance would be beyond AlterNet’s ability to validate, let alone the two-person team of Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank.

There’s only one cavil I have with Jeff and Joshua’s penetrating analysis of this mysterious intervention by one Alice Donovan. They write:

There’s no question that Donovan’s writings gave weight to the idea that US interference in both Syria and Ukraine might spark a new and dangerous Cold War. But there’s nothing remarkable about those sentiments. It’s a perspective that is at least partially shared by many US foreign policy analysts, from Stephen Cohen to Henry Kissinger. And it’s a perspective that readers are entitled, though rarely given the opportunity, to hear.

As I pointed out earlier, there are ample opportunities to hear such perspectives. You can even describe them as hegemonic even though you would get the impression from many on the left that this is just like 2003 and the USA is poised for a “regime change” operation in Syria. Ironically, the USA has been intervening massively in Syria but mostly against the jihadists that are supposedly a threat to all we hold dear (Madonna videos, cabernet sauvignon, Marlboro cigarettes, etc.) For the entire time, the USA was bombing ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, there was not a peep from the “anti-imperialist” left. It was up to my friend Anand Gopal to make the biggest stink about the American warmongering in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, of all places. This was the sort of investigative reporting a responsible left should have been engaged in, if it wasn’t so fucked up. If you haven’t read Gopal’s article, I invited you to read it now. Here’s a representative paragraph:

LATER THAT SAME day, the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria uploaded a video to its YouTube channel. The clip, titled “Coalition Airstrike Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015,” shows spectral black-and-white night-vision footage of two sprawling compounds, filmed by an aircraft slowly rotating above. There is no sound. Within seconds, the structures disappear in bursts of black smoke. The target, according to the caption, was a car-bomb factory, a hub in a network of “multiple facilities spread across Mosul used to produce VBIEDs for ISIL’s terrorist activities,” posing “a direct threat to both civilians and Iraqi security forces.” Later, when he found the video, Basim could watch only the first few frames. He knew immediately that the buildings were his and his brother’s houses.

That’s the sort of information we used to get from Wikileaks—that is until Julian Assange turned into Alice Donovan.

Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options

By Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Jaffe December 25 at 2:14 PM

The first email arrived in the inbox of CounterPunch, a left-leaning American news and opinion website, at 3:26 a.m. — the middle of the day in Moscow.

“Hello, my name is Alice Donovan and I’m a beginner freelance journalist,” read the Feb. 26, 2016 message.

The FBI was tracking Donovan as part of a months-long counterintelligence operation code-named “NorthernNight.” Internal bureau reports described her as a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls seeking to undermine America’s democratic institutions.

Her first articles as a freelancer for CounterPunch and at least 10 other online publications weren’t especially political. As the 2016 presidential election heated up, Donovan’s message shifted. Increasingly, she seemed to be doing the Kremlin’s bidding by stoking discontent toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and touting WikiLeaks, which U.S. officials say was a tool of Russia’s broad influence operation to affect the presidential race.

“There’s no denying the emails that Julian Assange has picked up from inside the Democratic Party are real,” she wrote in August 2016 for a website called We Are Change. “The emails have exposed Hillary Clinton in a major way — and almost no one is reporting on it.”

The events surrounding the FBI’s NorthernNight investigation follow a pattern that repeated for years as the Russian threat was building: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions. Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement, a fear of making matters worse or a misguided belief in the resilience of American society and its democratic institutions.

One previously unreported order — a sweeping presidential finding to combat global cyberthreats — prompted U.S. spy agencies to plan a half-dozen specific operations to counter the Russian threat. But one year after those instructions were given, the Trump White House remains divided over whether to act, intelligence officials said.

This account of the United States’ piecemeal response to the Russian disinformation threat is based on interviews with dozens of current and former senior U.S. officials at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and U.S. and European intelligence services, as well as NATO representatives and top European diplomats.

The miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia that left the United States vulnerable to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election trace back to decisions made at the end of the Cold War, when senior policymakers assumed Moscow would be a partner and largely pulled the United States out of information warfare. When relations soured, officials dismissed Russia as a “third-rate regional power” that would limit its meddling to the fledgling democracies on its periphery.

Senior U.S. officials didn’t think Russia would dare shift its focus to the United States. “I thought our ground was not as fertile,” said Antony J. Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state. “We believed that the truth shall set you free, that the truth would prevail. That proved a bit naive.”

The sun sets at the White House on Dec. 19. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

With the 2018 elections fast approaching, the debate over how to deal with Russia continues. Many in the Trump White House, including the president, play down the effects of Russian interference and complain that the U.S. intelligence report on the 2016 election has been weaponized by Democrats seeking to undermine Trump.

“If it changed one electoral vote, you tell me,” said a senior Trump administration official, who, like others, requested anonymity to speak frankly. “The Russians didn’t tell Hillary Clinton not to campaign in Wisconsin. Tell me how many votes the Russians changed in Macomb County [in Michigan]. The president is right. The Democrats are using the report to delegitimize the presidency.”

Other senior officials in the White House, the intelligence community and the Pentagon have little doubt that the Russians remain focused on meddling in U.S. politics.

“We should have every expectation that what we witnessed last year is not a one-shot deal,” said Douglas E. Lute, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “The Russians are onto something. They found a weakness, and they will be back in 2018 and 2020 with a more sophisticated and targeted approach.”

Digital blitz

The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an all-out information battle during the Cold War. But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the Bill Clinton administration and Congress in 1999 shuttered America’s preeminent global information agency.

“They thought it was all over and that we’d won the propaganda war,” said Joseph D. Duffey, the last director of the U.S. Information Agency, which was charged with influencing foreign populations.

When President Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia began searching for ways to make up for its diminished military. Officials seized on influence campaigns and cyberwarfare as equalizers. Both were cheap, easy to deploy and hard for an open and networked society such as the United States to defend against.

Early warning signs of the growing Russian disinformation threat included the 2005 launch of RT, the Kremlin-funded TV network, and the 2007 cyberattacks that overwhelmed Estonia’s banks, government ministries and newspapers. A year later, the Kremlin launched a digital blitz that temporarily shut down Georgia’s broadcasters and defaced the website of its president.

Closer to home for Americans, Russian government trolls in 2012 went after a U.S. ambassador for the first time on social media, inundating his Twitter account with threats.

But for U.S. officials, the real wake-up call came in early 2014 when the Russians annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. An intercepted Russian military intelligence report dated February 2014 documented how Moscow created fake personas to spread disinformation on social media to buttress its broader military campaign.

The classified Russian intelligence report, obtained by The Washington Post, offered examples of the messages the fake personas spread. “Brigades of westerners are now on their way to rob and kill us,” wrote one operative posing as a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. “Morals have been replaced by thirst for blood and hatred toward anything Russian.”

Officials in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence branch, drafted the document as part of an effort to convince Kremlin higher-ups of the campaign’s effectiveness. Officials boasted of creating a fake Facebook account they used to send death threats to 14 politicians in southeastern Ukraine.

Five days into the campaign, the GRU said, its fake accounts were garnering 200,000 views a day.

Mixing entertainment, news and propaganda

The Ukraine operation offered the Americans their first glimpse of the power of Russia’s post-Cold War playbook.

In March 2014, Obama paid a visit to NATO headquarters, where he listened as unnerved allies warned him of the growing Russia threat. Aides wanted to give the president options to push back.

President Barack Obama speaks in Brussels after meeting with NATO leaders in March 2014 about, among other things, the threat posed by Russia. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

In the White House Situation Room a few weeks later, they pitched him on creating several global channels — in Russian, Mandarin and other languages — that would compete with RT. The proposed American versions would mix entertainment with news programing and pro-Western propaganda.

The president brushed aside the idea as politically impractical.

In the Situation Room that day was Richard Stengel, the undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department, who, like Obama, disliked the idea. “There were all these guys in government who had never created one minute of TV content talking about creating a whole network,” said Stengel, the former top editor at Time magazine. “I remember early on telling a friend of mine in TV that people don’t like government content. And he said, ‘No, they don’t like bad content, and government content sucks.’ ”

So Stengel began to look for alternatives to counter the threat. Across Eastern Europe and Ukraine, Russian-language channels mixing entertainment, news and propaganda were spreading the Kremlin’s message. Stengel wanted to help pro-Western stations on Russia’s periphery steal back audiences from the Russian stations by giving them popular American television shows and movies.

Shortly after Obama nixed the idea of American-funded networks, Stengel traveled to Los Angeles in the hope that a patriotic appeal to Hollywood executives might persuade them to give him some blockbusters free.

Stengel’s best bet was Michael M. Lynton, then the chairman of Sony Pictures, who had grown up in the Netherlands and immediately understood what Stengel was trying to do. He recalled how in the 1970s one Dutch political party sponsored episodes of “M.A.S.H.” to portray America as sympathetic to the antiwar movement. A rival party bought the rights to “All in the Family” to send the message that U.S. cities were filled with bigots like Archie Bunker.

But Sony’s agreements with broadcasters in the region prevented Lynton from giving away programming. Other studios also turned Stengel away.

Back in Washington, Stengel got Voice of America to launch a round-the-clock Russian-language news broadcast and found a few million dollars to translate PBS documentaries on the Founding Fathers and the American Civil War into Russian for broadcast in eastern Ukraine. He had wanted programing such as “Game of Thrones” but would instead have to settle for the likes of Ken Burns.

“We brought a tiny, little Swiss Army knife to a gunfight,” he said.

A counter-disinformation team

The task of countering what the Russians were doing fell to a few underfunded bureaucrats at the State Department who journeyed to the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon and the FBI searching for help and finding little.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of 9/11 prioritized counterterrorism. They worried about the legal peril of snooping on social media and inadvertently interfering with Americans’ communications. The State Department created a small team to tweet messages about Ukraine, but they were vastly outnumbered by the Russian trolls.

Frustrated U.S. officials concluded that the best information on Russia’s social media campaign in Ukraine wasn’t coming from U.S. intelligence agencies, but from independent researchers. In April 2015, Lawrence Alexander, a 29-year-old self-taught programmer who lived with his parents in Brighton, Britain, received an unexpected Twitter message from a State Department official who reported to Stengel.

“Can you show what [the Russians] are swarming on in real time?” the official, Macon Phillips, asked. “Your work gave me an idea.”

A few months later, Phillips requested an in-person meeting. Alexander, who suffers from a genetic disorder that often leaves him chronically fatigued, wasn’t able to make the two-hour trek to the U.S. Embassy in London. So Phillips took the train to Brighton, where Alexander walked him through his research, which was spurred by his alarm over Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and his crackdown on gays and journalists.

Phillips’s ideas sprang from his work on Obama’s first presidential campaign, which used social media analytics to target supporters. One proposal now was to identify “online influencers” who were active on social media spreading Kremlin messages. Phillips wanted to use analytics to target them with U.S. counterarguments.

State Department lawyers, citing the Privacy Act, demanded guarantees that data on Americans using social media wouldn’t inadvertently be collected as part of the effort.

The pre-Internet law restricts the collection of data related to the ways Americans exercise their First Amendment rights. The lawyers concluded that it applied to tweets, leaving some State Department officials baffled.

“When you tweet, it’s public,” said Moira Whelan, a former deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy. “We weren’t interested in Americans.”

The lawyers’ objections couldn’t be overcome. The project, which Phillips worked on for more than a year, was dead.

Zapping servers

While Stengel and Phillips were struggling to make do with limited resources, the CIA, at the direction of Obama’s top national security advisers, was secretly drafting proposals for covert action.

Russia hawks in the administration wanted far-reaching options that, they argued, would convince Putin that the price he would pay for continued meddling in the politics of neighboring democracies would be “certain and great,” said a former official involved in the debate.

One of the covert options that officials discussed called for U.S. spy agencies to create fake websites and personas on social media to fight back against the Kremlin’s trolls in Europe. Proponents wanted to spread anti-Kremlin messages, drawing on U.S. intelligence about Russian military activities and government corruption. But others doubted the effectiveness of using the CIA to conduct influence operations against an adversary that operated with far fewer constraints. Or they objected to the idea of U.S. spies even doing counterpropaganda.

James R. Clapper Jr., the top spy in the Obama administration, said in an interview that he didn’t think the United States “should emulate the Russians.”

Another potential line of attack involved using cyberweapons to take down Russian-controlled websites and zap servers used to control fake Russian personas — measures some officials thought would have little long-term effect or would prompt Russian retaliation.

The covert proposals, which were circulated in 2015 by David S. Cohen, then the CIA’s deputy director, divided the administration and intelligence agencies and never reached the national security cabinet or the president for consideration. Cohen declined to comment.

Putin and Obama shake hands at the United Nations in September 2015. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

After top White House officials received intelligence in the summer of 2016 about Putin’s efforts to help Trump, the deadlocked debate over covert options to counter the Kremlin was revived. Obama was loath to take any action that might prompt the Russians to disrupt voting. So he warned Putin to back off and then watched to see what the Russians would do.

After the election, Obama’s advisers moved to finalize a package of retaliatory measures.

Officials briefly considered rushing out an overarching new order, known as a presidential finding, that for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union would authorize sweeping covert operations against Russia. But they opted against such a far-reaching approach. Instead, the White House decided on a targeted cyber-response that would make use of an existing presidential finding designed to combat cyberthreats around the world rather than from Russia specifically.

As a supplement to the cyber finding, Obama signed a separate, narrower order, known as a “Memorandum of Notification,” which gave the CIA the authority to plan operations against Russia. Senior administration and intelligence officials discussed a half-dozen specific actions, some of which required implants in Russian networks that could be triggered remotely to attack computer systems.

Members of the Obama administration expected that the CIA would need a few weeks or, in some cases, months to finish planning for the proposed operations.

“Those actions were cooked,” said a former official. “They had been vetted and agreed to in concept.”

Obama left behind a road map. Trump would have to decide whether to implement it.

‘This is what we live with’

Before Trump took office, a U.S. government delegation flew to NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief allies on what American intelligence agencies had learned about Russian tactics during the presidential election.

U.S. officials are normally reluctant to share sensitive intelligence with the alliance’s main decision-making body. But an exception was made in this case to help “fireproof” all 28 allies in case Russia targeted them next, a senior U.S. official said.

The Obama administration had gone through an agonizing learning curve. The Russians, beginning in 2014, had hacked the State Department and the White House before targeting the Democratic National Committee and other political institutions. By the time U.S. officials came to grips with the threat, it was too late to act. Now they wanted to make sure NATO allies didn’t repeat their mistakes.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, gaveled the closed-door session to order, and the Americans ran through their 30-minute presentation. The Europeans had for years been journeying to Washington to warn senior U.S. officials about Russian meddling in their elections. The Americans had listened politely but didn’t seem particularly alarmed by the threat, reflecting a widely held belief inside the U.S. government that its democratic institutions and society weren’t nearly as vulnerable as those in Europe.

For the first time since the days after 9/11, the American officials in Brussels sounded overwhelmed and humbled, said a European ambassador in the room.

When the briefers finished, the allies made clear to the Americans that little in the presentation surprised them. “This is what we’ve been telling you for some time,” the Europeans said, according to Lute, the NATO ambassador. “This is what we live with. Welcome to our lives.”

Mr. Preemption

After Trump took office, Russia’s army of trolls began to shift their focus within the United States, according to U.S. intelligence reports. Instead of spreading messages to bolster Trump, they returned to their long-held objective of sowing discord in U.S. society and undermining American global influence. Trump’s presidency and policies became a Russian disinformation target.

Articles from Donovan and other Kremlin-backed personas slammed the Trump administration for, among other things, supporting “terrorists” and authorizing military strikes that killed children in Syria.

“They are all about disruption,” said a former official briefed on the intelligence. “They want a distracted United States that can’t counter Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.”

The dilemma facing the Trump White House was an old one: how to respond.

In the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Brett Holmgren, a top intelligence official in the Obama White House, briefed Ezra Cohen-Watnick, his Trump administration counterpart, on the actions Obama had taken. Holmgren and Cohen-Watnick declined to comment.

Once in the job, Cohen-Watnick sent out memos identifying counterintelligence threats, including Russia’s, as his top priority, officials said.

He convened regular meetings in the White House Situation Room at which he pressed counterintelligence officials in other government agencies, including the CIA, to finalize plans for Russia, including those left behind by the Obama team, according to officials in attendance.

By spring, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, senior White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill and Cohen-Watnick began advocating measures to counter Russian disinformation using covert influence and cyber-operations, according to officials.

But, just as in the Obama administration, the most far-reaching ideas ran into obstacles.

McMaster and Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, both laid claim to controlling the cyber-portfolio and would sometimes issue conflicting instructions that left policymakers and intelligence officials confused about whose direction to follow.

Obama’s 11th-hour actions had cleared the way for spy agencies to conduct cyber-operations to counter the Russian threat. But the CIA still had to finalize the plans, and the Trump White House wanted to review them.

Bossert was more cautious than McMaster about using cyber-tools offensively. His message to the National Security Council staff, a senior White House official said, was: “We have to do our homework. Everybody needs to slow down.”

Directing the CIA to conduct covert influence operations was a similarly fraught process. Before the agency could proceed, intelligence officials informed the White House that it would need new authorities from the president.

To Trump officials, the CIA appeared to be more interested in other priorities, such as proposals to target WikiLeaks. The National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment on the covert options.

The policy debates were further complicated by the difficulty of even raising Russian meddling with a president who viewed the subject as an attack on his legitimacy.

[Doubting the intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked]

In an effort to bring Trump around, officials presented him with evidence of Putin’s duplicity and continued interference in U.S. politics. But the president’s recent public statements suggest that he continues to believe that he is making progress in building a good relationship with the Russian leader.

Earlier this month, Trump noted that Putin, in his end-of-year news conference, had praised Trump’s stewardship of the U.S. economy.

“He said very nice things,” Trump told reporters.

Putin later called Trump to praise the CIA for providing Russia with intelligence about a suspected terrorist plot in St. Petersburg. “That’s a great thing,” Trump said after the second call with the Russian leader, “and the way it’s supposed to work.”

Even White House officials who take the Russia threat seriously fret that aggressive covert action will just provoke Putin to increase his assault on a vulnerable United States.

“One of the things I’ve learned over many, many years of looking at Russia and Putin is that he’s Mr. Preemption. If he thinks that somebody else is capable of doing something to him, he gets out ahead of it,” said a senior administration official. “We have to be extraordinarily careful.”

What’s real and not real

The Kremlin has given little indication that it intends to back off its disinformation campaign inside the United States. More than a year after the FBI first identified Alice Donovan as a probable Russian troll, she’s still pitching stories to U.S. publications.

In the spring, Donovan’s name appeared on articles criticizing Trump’s conduct of the war in Syria and defending Russian-backed leader Bashar al-Assad. “U.S.-led coalition airstrike on Assad’s troops not accidental,” the headline of a May 20 piece on CounterPunch read. Her last piece for CounterPunch, headlined “Civil War in Venezuela,” was published Oct. 16.

Other pieces under her byline have been published in recent months at Veterans Today, where Gordon Duff, the site’s editor, said he knew nothing about Donovan.

“I don’t edit what people do,” Duff said. “If it’s original, I’ll publish it. I don’t decide what’s real and not real.”

At We Are Change, which has also recently published Donovan’s work, Luke Rudkowski, one of the site’s founders, wondered why the FBI didn’t contact his publication with its suspicions. “I wish we could get information from the FBI so we could understand what’s really happening,” he said. “I wish they had been more transparent.”

The FBI, in keeping with its standard practice in counterintelligence investigations, has kept a close hold on information about Donovan and other suspected Russian personas peddling messages inside the United States.

The bureau does not have the authority to shut down the accounts of suspected trolls housed on U.S. social media companies’ platforms. “We’re not the thought police,” said one former senior law enforcement official.

The Russians are taking advantage of “seams between our policies, our laws and our bureaucracy,” said Austin Branch, a former Defense Department official who specialized in information operations.

The FBI said in a statement that it has employed cyber, criminal and counterintelligence tools to deal with the disinformation threat. “The FBI takes seriously any attempts to influence U.S. systems and processes,” the statement said.

In late November, The Post informed Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch’s editor, that the FBI suspects that Donovan is a Russian government persona. St. Clair said in an interview that Donovan’s submissions didn’t stand out among the 75 or so pitches he receives each day.

On Nov. 30, he sent her an email saying he wanted to discuss her work. When he got no response, St. Clair followed up with a direct message on Twitter, asking her to call him immediately.

On Dec. 5 Donovan finally replied by email: “I do not want to talk to anyone for security reasons.”

St. Clair tapped out a new message, begging her to provide proof — a photograph of her driver’s license or passport — that would show that she was the beginning freelance journalist she claimed to be in her introductory email from 2016.

“It shouldn’t be that difficult to substantiate,” he wrote.

He has yet to receive a response.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Adam Entous writes about national security, foreign policy and intelligence for The Post. He joined the newspaper in 2016 after more than 20 years with The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, where he covered the Pentagon, the CIA, the White House and Congress. He covered President George W. Bush for five years after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter for The Washington Post. She covers cybersecurity, surveillance, counterterrorism and intelligence issues.

Follow @nakashimae

Greg Jaffe is a national security reporter for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009. Previously, he covered the White House and the military for The Post.

Follow @GregJaffe

December 23, 2017

How Jacobin got Henry Wallace wrong

Filed under: anti-Communism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

Like the last issue of Jacobin that attempted—poorly—to theorize ecology, the latest one devoted to the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution has generated controversy. John Bellamy Foster took apart the last issue and the ISO’s Todd Chretien has a whack at the new one that dispenses with his usually genial manner. He quite rightly views the “garlic” article by Connor Kilpatrick and Adaner Usmani as having a conclusion that “doesn’t even pass the smell test” and advancing “a rotten old argument.” That’s even more brutal that my commentary on the article.

When I heard that there was an article in the latest issue by editorial board member Seth Ackerman dumping on Henry Wallace, I decided to comment on it as well especially since my good friend Michael Yates of Monthly Review loathed it.

Ackerman is a fairly typical Jacobin type, working on a Ph.D. in history at Cornell University and who supports Democratic Party candidates using circumlocutions that might have made Gus Hall dizzy:

Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.

This, of course, dovetails with Eric Blanc’s defense of the Non-Partisan League running campaigns on the Democratic Party ballot line 90 years ago as well as the dodgy strategy now being carried out by the DSA.

Alarm bells went off early on in Ackerman’s article (behind a paywall) when it charged Henry Wallace being a dupe of the Communist Party. He cited a historian named Thomas W. Devine whose “devastating account” of the 1948 Progressive Party in a book titled “Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism” fingered all the reds. A New Yorker article I remember well hailed Devine’s research:

Wallace’s relationship with Communism is the most fraught aspect of his career, and it dominates Devine’s book, which might be called a revision of the revisionists. At intervals since the seventies, scholars on the left have argued that Wallace’s politics—embodied most conspicuously in his run for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, in 1948—opened a window of opportunity for the advancement of labor, race, and internationalist causes, and that Cold War red-baiting closed it prematurely.

I guess I am one of those revisionists since I not only singled out his campaign as a model for the left but criticized the SWP for not having the brains to get involved with it back in 1948. In discussions with Sol Dollinger, a supporter of the Cochranite group that I strongly identify with, I learned that Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman, and the mostly working-class supporters of the American Socialist magazine viewed the SWP’s hostility to Wallace as a symptom of the party’s Stalinophobia.

In summing up the Wallace campaign, Ackerman was likely recycling Devine’s conclusions, among which was that it “catastrophically isolated the Communist Party, sundering its ties to the labor movement and heightening its vulnerability to the coming tsunami of Cold War repression.” Strange. I always thought that the CP’s isolation (I would call it persecution) began with Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech. That was followed up a year later by Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9835 that would purge “disloyal” employees from government jobs. As I have often stated, McCarthyism began under Truman.

Doing a search in JSTOR revealed that Devine’s scholarly contributions appear rather meager, consisting of only 4 book reviews. Consistent with his detective work on the Wallace campaign was a review of a book by David Everitt titled “A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television” that Devine recommended because it debunked the notion that McCarthyism was an unprecedented “reign of terror” in which cynical, venal “red hunters” deliberately and relentlessly destroyed the lives and careers of anyone who so much as expressed support for racial equality or civil liberties”. Devine described this as “gauzy romanticism”.

The NY Sun, a shitty rightwing newspaper that was founded by the arch-reactionary billionaire Conrad Black and other scumbags, loved Everitt’s book as well. A reviewer particularly liked the way it nailed John Henry Faulk, a victim of McCarthyism who I spoke to once when I was in Houston, Texas building support for the SWP’s suit against the FBI. Faulk was universally beloved on Texas left back then even though Leveritt hoped to wake people up to the red menace:

Though he presented himself as a well-meaning, even naïve, liberal, Faulk was in fact a hardened left-winger with communist sympathies who privately denigrated the country he lived in. He was hardly the “Southern liberal … who detested Communism,” as Nizer put it on the witness stand; he even believed the Korean War had been planned by John Foster Dulles and Douglas MacArthur in conjunction with the pro-Chiang Kai-shek China lobby, each determined to introduce a policy that would offset the effects of the American abandonment of China.

Ah, yes. What a blackguard.

Is this really the way that the fucking Jacobin is going? What a shame.

I’ll defend Henry Wallace any day of the week, sticking to my “revisionist” convictions of the late 60s. If that disqualifies me as a “new Communist” in Adaner Usmani and Connor Kilpatrick’s eyes, so be it.

Here’s the way I see it.

During the 1930s there were opportunities for a third party based on the trade union movement, but because of the hegemony of the Communist Party, they were squandered. FDR’s New Deal attracted the blind support of the CP, even as the party ran its own ineffective propaganda campaigns for president.

Ironically it was the turn of the US ruling class against the New Deal consensus that precipitated a third party initiative in 1948, the Progressive Party campaign of Henry Wallace. In many ways, Wallace symbolized the most progressive aspects of the New Deal. As Secretary of Agriculture, he and colleague Harold Ickes played the role of liberal conscience in the FDR cabinet. He took the principles of the New Deal at face value and decided to launch the Progressive Party in the face of what he considered their betrayal at the hands of Harry Truman.

The Wallace campaign has served as a whipping boy for dogmatic Marxist electoral theorizing, much of which I took seriously when I was in the Trotskyist movement. It was supposed to prove what a dead end middle class electoral politics was, in contrast to the insurmountable power and logic of a Labor Party. Unfortunately, the Labor Party existed only in the realm of propaganda while the Wallace campaign, with all its flaws, existed in the realm of reality.

While most people are aware of Wallace’s resistance to the Cold War and to some of the more egregious anti-union policies of the Democrats and Republicans, it is important to stress the degree to which his campaign embraced the nascent civil rights movement.

Early in the campaign, Wallace went on a tour of the south. True to his party’s principles, he announced in advance that he would neither address segregated audiences nor stay in segregated hotels. This was virtually an unprecedented measure to be taken at the time by a major politician. Wallace paid for it dearly. In a generally hostile study of Henry Wallace (Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, Graham White and John Maze), the authors begrudgingly pay their respects to the courage and militancy of the candidate:

The southern tour had begun peacefully enough in Virginia, despite the existence in that state of a law banning racially mixed public assemblies. In Norfolk, Suffolk, and Richmond, Wallace spoke to unsegregated and largely receptive audiences. But when the party went on into supposedly more liberal North Carolina, where there was no law against unsegregated meetings, the violence started. A near riot preceded his first address, and a supporter, James D. Harris of Charlotte, was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back. The next day there was no bloodshed, but Wallace was subjected to a barrage of eggs and fruit, and the crowd of about five hundred got so completely out of control that he had to abandon his speech. At Hickory, North Carolina, the barrage of eggs and tomatoes and the shouting were so furious that Wallace was prevented from speaking, but he tried to deliver a parting thrust over the public address system: ‘As Jesus Christ told his disciples, when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere.’ If they closed their minds against his message, he would, like Jesus Christ, abandon them to their iniquity.

Wallace was trounced badly as a result of Truman’s demagogic appeal to some bread-and-butter issues supported by the trade union bureaucracy, which was also working overtime to purge CP’ers out of the trade unions. Furthermore, since the CP had done nothing to defend trade union prerogatives during WWII, even to the extent of supporting speed up, many rank and filers considered them to be enemies of the labor movement. On top of this, the 1948 CP coup in Czechoslovakia against the social democratic government of Edward Benes alienated many liberals and even some leftists. Despite efforts by Wallace to keep Stalin at arm’s length, the rightwing in the United States was able to exploit resentment over the situation in Czechoslovakia and paint Wallace as a “Communist dupe”.

When the votes were counted, Wallace only received 2.37 percent of the total. This disaster set the tone for a general offensive against the left in the US, focusing particularly on the CP. In no time at all, the witch-hunt was unleashed, mobs attacked the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, and the Korean War broke out. There is very little doubt that the Wallace campaign and the forces gathered around it were the sole force capable at that time of putting a roadblock in the way of this quasi-fascist movement. If the labor movement had not been put on the defensive, if the civil rights movement had been able to move ahead under the general framework of Progressive Party campaigns, perhaps the dismal 1950s would have not been inevitable. This is not a socialist revolution, but it is the real class struggle nonetheless. Seeing the relationship between the two processes requires some dialectical insight.


December 22, 2017

Wind River; Hostiles

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm


“Wind River” and “Hostiles”, two of this year’s highly praised films and clear-cut Oscar bait, have a number of things in common. They both feature bankable white male stars in leading roles as good-hearted saviors of indigenous peoples in the time-honored (speaking charitably) tradition of “Dances with Wolves”: Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale. They also were directed and written by white males who made the transition from acting careers: Taylor Sheridan and Scott Cooper. And, finally, they are both marred by political and artistic shortcomings. After making the case for them being rated “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I will conclude with some thoughts on what might go into a Hollywood film about native peoples although I doubt The Weinstein Company (the distributor of “Wind River” that was cut loose by Taylor Sheridan after news broke about its sexual predator boss) would be interested.

This review will reveal the endings of both films but I doubt that by the time you get to that point in the article, you’ll have little interest in seeing either of them.

Continue reading

December 20, 2017

What can we learn from the Russian Revolution? A reply to Jacobin

Filed under: Jacobin,Kevin Coogan,Russian Revolution — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Among the 7 million orphaned children on the streets during the Russian Civil War

In this the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, you can now read about how the Bolsheviks prepared the way for Stalin in Dissent and Jacobin, the flagship publications of rightwing and leftwing social democracy respectively. Eerily enough, they sound like they could have been written by Karl Kautsky if he were alive today.

In Dissent, you can read Mitchell Cohen’s “What Lenin’s Critics Got Right” that is mostly a defense of Julius Martov, the Menshevik leader. Its curdled prose is steeped in historical minutiae that could be of less interest to young radicals trying to figure out a strategy for overthrowing the capitalist system. Besides trying to bury the October Revolution for the millionth time since 1917, Cohen makes a laughable attempt at debunking Marx whose critique of “social democracy” in the 18th Brumaire supposedly gave far too much authority to the working class as a universalizing revolutionary agency.

Reading this, I scratched my head and wondered what the hell he was talking about since the Second International was formed a full 37 years after the 18th Brumaire was written. What “social democracy” was Marx referring to? That was news to me.

It turns out he was referring to a party best known as the Mountain (Montagne) that had both small proprietors and working class members just like the Democratic Party in the USA but hardly resembling the party led by Karl Kautsky. It was instead a party led by  Alexandre Ledru-Rollin that backed Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 coup. So much for “democracy”. As for the “socialism” part, the Mountain opposed the June Days uprising in 1848 that was triggered by the Second Republic’s decision to shut down the National Workshops, a measure enacted to create jobs for the unemployed. The National Guard was called out to suppress the uprising, leaving 10,000 dead workers in its wake and another 4,000 deported to Algeria. Why am I not surprised that Mitchell Cohen defends the Mountain against Karl Marx who had these pithy words for the counter-revolutionary party: “a nightmare on the brains of the living”?

In 2003, Cohen wrote that “Unless there is a coup, force will eventually be needed to defang Saddam’s regime. The only real questions are when, how much force, and what aftermath.” So that’s Dissent Magazine’s co-editor for you.

We turn now to Sunkara’s 7,500 word article on the Russian Revolution titled “The Few Who Won” that strikes a literary pose at the outset, referring to Cheka chief Felix Dzerzhinsky as if he stepped out of a Len Deighton novel: “By age forty, he was clad in black leather, designing a bloody terror as head of the young Soviet Union’s secret police.” Funny about that black leather thing. There are lots of pictures of Dzerzhinsky on the net but none in black leather. I guess the idea was to get the reader prepped to read something along the lines of “Darkness at Noon”.

The first 5,500 words or so are relatively favorable to Lenin’s party, even going so far as to describe the Russians as “freed from generations of oppression” in 1917. But in the last 2,000 words, Sunkara adopts the pose of prosecuting attorney, starting with the section titled “Terrorism and Communism” that evokes Karl Kautsky’s attack on the Soviet state in a 1919 book with exactly the same title. Was Sunkara consciously trying to recycle Kautsky’s polemics? I am afraid so.

All you really need to know from Kautsky’s book is this:

Those who defend Bolshevism do so by pointing out that their opponents, the White Guards of the Finns, the Baltic barons, the counter-revolutionary Tsarist generals and admirals have not done any better. But is it a justification of theft to show that others steal?

The lack of a class perspective here is shocking only if you are not familiar with the steep decline of the German socialist leader as the 20th century trudged forward. This is how Karl Kautsky described the social democratic government that had Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s blood on its hands in a 1934 book titled “Hitlerism and Social Democracy”. Congratulating his party for not sinking to the level of the Bolsheviks, he viewed its peaceful, parliamentary behavior as beyond reproach even if Hitler used it to his advantage:

Attempts to bring about the establishment of an anti-Bolshevist reign of terror under a Social Democratic regime were not lacking, as was evidenced by the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, an assassination perpetrated by a group of reactionary army officers. But the Social Democrats must consider it fortunate that the Social Democratic government of that time repelled with horror every effort of the frenzied army officers to force it to adopt terroristic measures.

Sunkara compares Lincoln’s draconian measures during the Civil War to those imposed by Lenin in 1918. Unlike Lenin, Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties was a temporary measure but in the USSR they persisted under Stalin. This comparison is specious. To make a real comparison, imagine if both Mexico and Canada were slave states that intervened on behalf of the South. Additionally, what if England and France were also slave states that had joined in? A pincer movement of all four states seizes large parts of the North, sweeping up freed Blacks and returning them to the South. It also strikes deadly blows at the infant industrial capitalism of the North based on free wage labor. All the textile factories of the New England states are burned to the ground and their workers lined up and killed by counter-revolutionary firing squads.

After four years of bloody civil war, the North finally drives out the invaders and—licking its wounds—tries to return to normal. But not being satisfied with their defeat by the largely working-class Union army, the four invading slave states begin amassing armies on the North’s borders and issuing threats once again about the need to overthrow the Radical Republicans. Under these conditions, the NY Times, the NY Herald and other newspapers begin to echo slave state propaganda while the pro-slavery Democratic Party inside the North begins to organize mass demonstrations calling for reunification with the South but under its socio-economic umbrella. How long would the Radical Republicans put up with this? You can bet that Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would have been even a much bigger bad-ass than Felix Dzerzhinsky.

Of course, some would argue that this is the kind of excuse Stalin used when he cracked down on dissent, jailed protesters, ruled by fiat, etc. That is best answered using the tools of historical materialism. When the social democrats argue that there is no difference between Red Terror and Stalin’s Gulags, they inevitably paper over crucial class distinctions. In the Russian civil war, the terror was directed against those who wanted to restore the status quo ante while in the 1930s the Gulags were filled with ordinary working people and peasants fed up with bureaucratic privilege and repression. The class differences were crucial.

Sunkara reviews Bolshevik policy during War Communism and finds it lacking. The peasants were forced to supply grain to the cities at gunpoint, thus turning them against the government. To satisfy the peasants, it would have required a return to market relations in the countryside as occurred under the NEP but in 1918 those same market relations would have caused mass starvation in the cities. The logical conclusion but one only hinted at by Sunkara is that Kautsky was right. A country that was so steeped in backward agrarian relations had no business trying to bypass capitalism. That, in fact, was also what Lenin believed until 1917 when four years of war and austerity drove the masses to such a boiling point that they cast aside all the “moderate socialists” and, taking the July Days into account, the Bolsheviks as well if they could not relieve their suffering. Sometimes, history had a dynamic that is impossible to overcome. One should not blame the Bolsheviks for making the peasants angry. You really need to put the blame on the industrialists and financiers that launched WWI, with the full support of social democratic parliamentarians.

Those looking for a full-bodied assessment of civil war economic realities will have to go somewhere else besides Sunkara’s article that was only capable of this bland observation: “The Soviet state’s political base was decimated, too. Some industrial workers died in the Civil War, while others left starving cities and tried their chances in the countryside.” That’s 28 words to cover one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century.

To really get a feel for the destruction wrought by counter-revolution in the USSR, you have to turn to John Rees’s 1991 article “In Defense of October” that was mostly a polemic against Samuel Farber. (Unfortunately, Rees was incapable of applying the same dialectical analysis to Cuba back then or to Syria today.)

So what were the conditions facing the Bolsheviks? The civil war broke over a country already decimated by the First World War. By 1918 Russia was producing just 12 percent of the steel it had produced in 1913. More or less the same story emerged from every industry: iron ore had slumped to 12.3 percent of its 1913 figure; tobacco to 19 percent; sugar to 24 percent; coal to 42 percent; linen to 75 percent. The country was producing just one fortieth of the railway track it had manufactured in 1913. And by January 1918 some 48 percent of the locomotives in the country were out of action. Factories closed, leaving Petrograd with just a third of its former workforce by autumn 1918. Hyperinflation raged at levels only later matched in the Weimar Republic. The amount of workers’ income that came from sources other than wages rose from 3.5 percent in 1913 to 38 percent in 1918 – in many cases desperation drove workers to simple theft. The workers’ state was as destitute as the workers: the state budget for 1918 showed income at less than half of expenditure.

Starvation came hard on the heels of economic devastation. In the spring of 1918 the food ration in Moscow and Petrograd sank to just 10 percent of that needed to sustain a manual worker. Now it was Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, who ironically repeated the threat first made by the millionaire Ryabushynski: ‘The bony hand of hunger may throttle the Russian Revolution’. Disease necessarily walked hand in hand with starvation, claiming perhaps 7 million lives during the civil war, the same number of deaths as that suffered by Russians in the First World War. The tone of this cry from Lenin testifies to the seriousness of the crisis in 1918:

For God’s sake, use the most energetic and revolutionary measures to send grain, grain and more grain!!! Otherwise, Piter [Petrograd] may perish.

I urge you to read Rees’s entire article as well as one written by his comrade Megan Trudell titled “The Russian civil war: a Marxist analysis”. She explains why the Red Army eventually prevailed even though its requisitioning of grain drove many peasants into the counter-revolutionary army:

The White regimes returned the land to the landowners and the factories to the owners, denied trade union rights to workers, and were characterised by corruption, decadence, speculation and bitter repression of the population. The class in whose name the Whites fought was weak and crumbling, and was savagely lashing out in its decay. Within industrial centres controlled by Whites a reign of terror against workers was routine. In the Donbass, one in ten workers were shot if coal production fell, and ‘some workers were shot for simply being workers under the slogan, ‘Death to callused hands’.

Characterised by one of Kolchak’s generals as, ‘In the army, decay; in the staff, ignorance and incompetence; in the government, moral rot, disagreement and intrigues of ambitious egotists; in the country, uprising and anarchy; in public life, panic, selfishness, bribes and all sorts of scoundrelism’, the White regime at Omsk was a brutal and arbitrary dictatorship. It liquidated the trade unions and meted out savage reprisals against peasants who sheltered partisans–reprisals which inflamed the population and pushed many towards Bolshevism. When Omsk was taken by the Red Army in November 1919, it was with the willing participation of large numbers of peasant recruits. In many Siberian towns workers overthrew the Kolchak government before the Red troops arrived. In Irkutsk a Political Centre was established to govern in place of the Whites, which in turn was replaced by a mainly Bolshevik revolutionary committee installed by the workers in January 1920, to whom Kolchak was delivered after his capture.

Let me conclude with some comments on the final words of Sunkara’s article:

For a century, socialists have looked back at the October Revolution — sometimes with rose-colored glasses, sometimes to play at simplistic counterfactuals. But sometimes for good reason. Exploitation and inequality are still alive and well amid plenty. Even knowing how their story ended, we can learn from those who dared to fight for something better.

Yet both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were wrong in 1917. The Mensheviks’ faith in Russian liberals was misplaced, as were the Bolsheviks’ hopes for world revolution and an easy leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. The Bolsheviks, having seen over ten million killed in a capitalist war, and living in an era of upheaval, can be forgiven. We can also forgive them because they were first.

What is less forgivable is that a model built from errors and excesses, forged in the worst of conditions, came to dominate a left living in an unrecognizable world.

Does the word model really apply to the USSR? Unless you were in a Maoist sect or the CP, the word model was the last one you’d choose to describe your outlook on the former Soviet Union. Except for the arts in the 1920s, there was not much to admire if you thought of the USSR as a kind of balance sheet with credits on one side and debits on the other. For my generation, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela were much more in keeping with socialist ideals but they too were vulnerable to the same kinds of pressures that were put on the Bolsheviks. Despite the best intentions of the revolutionaries, the need to function in a largely capitalist world, even more so in the aftermath of the end of the USSR, forced the state to make painful adjustments.

Were any of these countries modeled on the Soviet Union? Except for the occasional display of the hammer-and-sickle, there’s not much evidence of that. Cuba, in particular, owed a lot more to José Marti than to V.I. Lenin. For the American left, the need is to build a movement that draws from native grounds, in the words of Alfred Kazin. Just like the Cubans referred back to José Marti and the Nicaraguans to Augusto Sandino, we need to connect with our own revolutionary traditions. That is why a group of us are involved with the North Star, a website that is named after Frederick Douglass’s newspaper.

Perhaps the main lesson to be drawn from the Bolsheviks is not about statecraft but how to struggle. Lenin’s main contribution, building upon those of Marx and Engels, is to draw class distinctions. If there’s anything to be gleaned from his writings, it is the need to make sharp class distinctions with the capitalist parties. In his day, this meant the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) while today it means opposing the Democratic Party.

As was the urgent task in Lenin’s day and just as much today, it is to build a revolutionary party. Unfortunately, the conditions that made it possible to jump-start such a party in the early 1900s no longer exist. Largely through the guidance of Frederick Engels, it was possible to build a Second International that provided a kind of template for party-building, including the Russian social democracy. Once that movement collapsed as a result of its support for WWI, the Comintern stepped into the breach. It was a movement much too reliant on the Kremlin, even before Stalin’s rise to power. In the same way that the Second International turned into an obstacle for world revolution, so did the Third International.

Today, the revolutionary left is in a very weak position but freed from the constraints of the epoch of Second and Third International domination when, for example, the reformist politicians in France could derail the May-June Events of 1968. We are living in a period when neither the Stalinist parties nor the social democrats have mass followings. However, the same economic tendencies that caused their decline are also eroding the social base of the revolutionary movement. With traditional blue-collar jobs disappearing, the trade unions no longer have the kind of weight they once had.

To figure out where to go next in a world that is “unrecognizable” in terms of October 1917, as Sunkara put it, we need to engage with the new social terrain using the same kind of analytical tools Lenin brought to bear when he wrote about the growth of capitalist property relations in the Russian countryside. What are the social forces gathering momentum that can begin to cohere as a conscious opponent of a capitalist class in decline?

Despite my criticisms of Jacobin, it does provide much-needed political analysis about the changes taking place in the USA today. My hope is that it will begin to abandon the orientation to the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party that offers false hopes. The best thing it can do is provide some leadership to the DSA that has the potential of serving as a linchpin for a new radical movement that can set the bourgeoisie back on its heels. With 25,000 members, it has the capability of providing the leadership that was on display in the early days of the Trump administration when bodies were put on the line to oppose his immigration bans. This means transforming the DSA into something much more like a serious and disciplined organization that knows how to kick ass and take names. If it instead prioritizes ringing doorbells for the Democratic Party, something else will have to take its place.

December 19, 2017

The Post; The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,television — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm


Among the stack of DVD’s received from studio publicists last month was Stephen Spielberg’s “The Post” that is both an homage to a newspaper that has propagandized for every imperialist war as well as a surprisingly candid examination of how it became possible partly through the internecine social ties between the paper’s owner and the warmongering political establishment.

The film is based on the decision of the Washington Post to defy the government’s ban on publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 in the aftermath of the same action taken against the New York Times. To understand how paradoxical “The Post” is, it contains both a sympathetic portrayal of A.M. Rosenthal as well as ones sympathetic to his opposite numbers Daniel Ellsberg and Ben Bagdikian.

Although Ellsberg certainly doesn’t need any introduction to CounterPunch readers, Ben Bagdikian is one of the 20th century’s great media heroes. Not only was he instrumental in pushing the Post into defying the government, he was a tireless critic of the media establishment that tolerated Washington Post owner Katherine Graham socializing with Robert McNamara at the same time he was escalating the monstrous war against the Vietnamese. In 1983, he wrote a book titled “Media Monopoly” that was certainly an influence on Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Played to perfection by Bob Odenkirk, Ben Bagdikian is the film’s moral and political center even though he plays second fiddle to Tom Hanks who is cast as Ben Bradlee.

Continue reading


December 14, 2017

New Communists? A reply to Jacobin Magazine

Filed under: Jacobin,Lenin,Russian Revolution,two-party system — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Adaner Usmani

Connor Kilpatrick

In the latest issue of Jacobin devoted to commentary on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, there’s an article co-written by Adaner Usmani, a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute of Brown University, and Jacobin editor Conner Kilpatrick titled “The New Communists” that basically urges the left to put that revolution stuff behind us or, more exactly, the far left, which I most certainly belong to as an “unrepentant Marxist”. The two young political scientists advise: “And yet the far left today embraces the Soviet obsession like a vampire hunter wields garlic. The problem is that garlic repels far more than just monsters — it makes you stink.”

Although Jacobin prides itself on being stylistically polished, I am not sure whether the words “embraces the Soviet obsession” is in keeping with its lofty aspirations. What does it mean to embrace an obsession, which almost sounds like obsessing over an obsession? If I were editing the smart magazine with its even smarter graphics, I might have changed that to “embraces the memory of the Soviet Union” or better yet to drop all the circumlocutions about “new communism” and simply say “And yet the far left today embraces Marxism like a vampire hunter wields garlic” because buried beneath all the clever prose is an agenda that might have not sat well with Jacobin subscribers. In keeping with the vampire-hunting analogy, the true goal of Usmani and Kilpatrick is to plunge a wooden stake into the heart of Marxism.

Since the article is behind a paywall, I will quote more liberally from the article than I do ordinarily in posts to this blog. So please forgive me in advance. To understand the dodgy approach of the authors, you have to begin with the fact that the word Marxism appears only 3 times in the article and only as a referent to states that have little to do with Marxist politics. For example, they write:

At its peak, some variation of the USSR’s flag flew over 20 percent of the Earth’s habitable landmass. But while McDonald’s has now spread to over 120 countries, today only three of the four ruling Communist parties left fly the hammer and sickle. Of the five nations that claim Marxism-Leninism, the hammer and sickle appears on the state flags of none. Once the symbol of the struggle for a better world, today the hammer and sickle is a sign of little more than single-party sclerosis.

But what does it mean to claim “Marxism-Leninism”? Is the presence of a hammer and sickle supposed to be some kind of genealogical marker indicating that the carrier has something to do with Karl Marx’s ideas? Missing from the article is any engagement with Stalin’s legacy, a dictator who made the hammer and sickle a symptom of sclerosis at least 85 years ago. The only reference to Stalin in the article is this:

Counterfactuals have become the stuff of lifelong sectarian debates for the socialist left: “if only Germany had gone the right way, if only Lenin had lived, if only Stalin had been isolated, if only, if only . . .” In almost every instance of mass revolt they find the Bolshevik’s October — Germany in 1918–20, France in 1968, Egypt in 2011, and everything in between — revolutions made mere “revolutionary rehearsals” by conniving bureaucrats or naive cadre.

This is quite a mouthful. Although it would take far too many words to unpack the sophistry embedded in this paragraph, suffice it to say that the mass revolt in France nearly 50 years ago came to an end because the French Communist Party had the numbers and the influence in the working class to break the back of the resistance and help Charles De Gaulle restore order. It is not a question of being “naïve”. Rather, it is one of being too small. It is also one of being disunited. In 1968, France’s far left was divided into many Trotskyist and Maoist sects. If it had learned to overcome its differences and constitute a united revolutionary front, it would have been much more difficult for the CP and the Gaullists to seize control. If there is one thing that Jacobin can contribute to now, it is serving as a catalyst for left revolutionary unity. Unfortunately, it appears to be far more interested in functioning as the ideological mouthpiece of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

Usmani and Kilpatrick want to cleanse the left of its self-righteous sectarians who insist on ideological purity:

At its worst, in this crowd, isolation is proof of revolutionary virtue, rather than political calamity. Particularly in a country like ours, the politics of “Yay revolution! Boo reform!” has led to a rhetorical arms race in which the most virtuous, maximalist positions are the most progressive.

I wonder if the two understand how Marxists have used the term “maximalist” in the past. Generally (and most certainly prevalent in Maoist circles), this is the outlook of groups like Avakian’s RCP or the Spartacist League that are in the habit of reminding their readers that socialism is the answer to whatever problem confronts the working class. Maximalism tended to appear in its purist form on May Day demonstrations years ago, when CP-led parades would carry banners calling for a Communist America.

If the authors were more forthright and less bent on fighting straw men, they would simply come out and say that they are sick and tired of people making work inside the Democratic Party a litmus test. The far left is not really opposed to reforms as might be indicated by Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant’s tireless advocacy of a $15 minimum wage. Speaking as a former member of another Trotskyist group, I have no memory of ever saying anything like “Yay, revolution”. I do confess to joining the rest of the comrades in singing “The Internationale” but that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.

The real divide is not over the need for reforms but how to fight for them. It has become clear that DSA’ers have begun to identify with the “sewer socialism” of elected Socialist Party members such as Victor Berger as illustrated by the election of DSA members in Somerville, Massachusetts. An article in CommonWealth made the comparison:

Somerville now has an opportunity to build a new kind of 21st century sewer socialism: getting the basics right while attending to the core distributional questions of municipal governance. The election showed that Somerville voters want to see their aldermen focus on issues of legislative policy. This is, of course, their primary task. The informal alliance of Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America in Somerville has coalesced around the politics of development: affordable housing and the rights of tenants, workers, and immigrants.

What’s missing from the CommonWealth article and 9 out 10 written about the Somerville election is the fact that the DSA’ers ran on the Democratic Party ticket. In Victor Berger’s day, this never happened. Upton Sinclair’s 1934 End Poverty In California (EPIC) gubernatorial run marked the first time an SP’er ever ran as a Democrat. So upsetting was this to SP members that his own son broke ties with him.

Perhaps I have a different idea of what kind of reforms are needed. While one understands completely why someone running for alderman in Somerville might want to make an issue out of garbage collection, my idea of a reform would be something much more like what I was involved with in 1970, when I lived not far from Somerville. We tragically unhip Trotskyists got behind the Shea Bill, sponsored by state legislator James Shea. Jr. that authorized Massachusetts residents to refuse combat duty in wars Congress has not declared. It also instructed Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn to defend and assist servicemen who refused to fight on such grounds.

Furthermore, whenever the Trotskyists got involved with any reform, whether for antiwar demands or abortion rights, it always stressed mass action such as rallies, petition drives, etc. If there is anything worth preserving from the long-lost Russian Revolution, it is the need for what we used to call “proletarian methods of struggle”. At the risk of sounding like a moldy fig, let me quote from Trotsky’s Transitional Program: “Self-reliance and proletarian methods of struggle. Only the workers themselves, organized to make full use of their massive numbers and social weight, can solve their problems. No wing of the ruling class is our ally. Strikes and other forms of mass action, which demonstrate the power of the workers’ movement in life, are the most effective.”

Usmani and Kilpatrick are anxious to remind us that even the Communists were “practical-minded” just like them:

The uncomfortable truth for both liberals and die-hard revolutionaries is that whenever and wherever Western Communist parties were strongest, it was because they were the most effective reformers, not revolutionaries. They won when they bested the social democrats at their own stated aims. It was not starry-eyed dreaming but everyday material victories that led 1.5 million people to attend Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer’s 1984 funeral. The flip side of this fact is that in the pre–World War II period, European Communism was feeble and ineffective — with the telling exception of the French Communist Party during the Popular Front and the Spanish one during the Civil War.

When I read this, I spit the coffee out of my mouth that I was drinking. This is most shocking statement in the entire article. So, if in the rest of Europe Communism was “feeble and ineffective”, we can at least look back at the Spanish Civil War as an exception to that rule? Are these two brilliant political scientists for real? The goddamned Communist Party was one of the main reasons Franco triumphed. Unlike France in 1968, this was not just a victory of the right facilitated by the CP’s hegemony. In Spain, it was a victory made possible by the CP’s willingness to murder revolutionaries, including Andres Nin. Nin and many others on the left were trying to overthrow capitalism, while the CP was dead-set on keeping the capitalist Spanish Republic intact even if that meant opposing worker control of the telephone building in Barcelona. When the largely anarchist workers refused to surrender, the CP-led security forces laid siege to the building, which provoked a general uprising. As might be obvious from what is going on in Spain today, Catalans were not only seeking national independence but also class independence. It was the CP’s “effective” control over the Popular Front that gave them the power to tame the unruly Catalan working class. Surely, Usmani and Kilpatrick are aware of this history. Why they would apply Stalinist varnish to it is a mystery.

Following the above citation, the authors get down to brass tacks:

The unprecedented success of Bernie Sanders’s run and his enduring popularity should have been a wake-up call to much of Leftworld: the country is ready for working-class politics, and even for the s-word, as long as we talk about it in everyday, tangible terms.

If you click the link in the paragraph above, you are directed to an interview with Adolph Reed from the August 8, 2016 Jacobin. If Usmani and Kilpatrick were half as open about their beliefs as Reed, the debate on the left that this article has provoked already on Facebook would have a lot more clarity. We have to assume that they agree with Reed who says:

Some who are eager to pronounce the campaign a failure are motivated by other ideological objectives. For example, Trotskyists and others who fetishize association with Democrats as the greatest sin in politics want to argue that Sanders would have been more successful if he’d run as an independent.

That’s a delusional position. In the first place, an independent candidacy outside the Democrat and Republican primaries would have received no attention at all to this point, which means we’d have wasted the last year, and almost none of the unions or other entities would have endorsed it.

Left out of these considerations is the big question about class independence. Until the CP’s Popular Front turn, Marxists never backed bourgeois parties. Maybe the irritation that Jacobin (at this point, we can probably assume that the article expresses the editorial board’s thinking) feels over the Russian Revolution is its connection to Lenin’s obdurate refusal to bloc with or vote for capitalist parties, which in Czarist Russia meant the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets). This is not the Lenin they want to have anything to do with.

Today, the relevant Lenin is not Lenin the indefatigable revolutionary, but Lenin the disconsolate strategist — the man who in 1920 chastised Communists “to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.”

What astonishing disregard for Lenin’s views. They are quoting “’Ultraleftism’: an Infantile Disorder”, which most people remember as a qualified endorsement of voting for Labour Party candidates (even if the qualification is along the lines of supporting them like a rope supports a hanging man.) So, if you are enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn and view Bernie Sanders as the American Corbyn, why not? Maybe it fudges over important theoretical questions to liken the Democrats to Labour but let’s put that aside momentarily. It is far more important to take another look at what Lenin actually said.

He is mostly trying to wean young CP leaders off of the ultraleftism that sounds a lot like the “yay, revolution” straw man Usmani and Kilpatrick were tilting at, especially Sylvia Pankhurst who wrote “The Communist Party must not compromise. . . . The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate, its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution.”

Lenin’s advice to Pankhurst and other impatient young revolutionaries is not anything like that of Usmani and Kilpatrick’s despite their predictable exploitation of a stance that mimics his like a funhouse mirror. There is nothing about becoming the leftwing of the Labour Party or that would sanction what DSA is doing today running as Democrats and stumping for Bernie Sanders’s next bid for President.

In my opinion, the British Communists should unite their four parties and groups (all very weak, and some of them very, very weak) into a single Communist Party on the basis of the principles of the Third International and of obligatory participation in parliament. The Communist Party should propose the following “compromise” election agreement to the Hendersons and Snowdens: let us jointly fight against the alliance between Lloyd George and the Conservatives; let us share parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of workers’ votes polled for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not in elections, but in a special ballot), and let us retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years—1903–17) the Russian Bolsheviks demanded and got it in respect of the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks.

I don’t mind particularly that Jacobin has decided to breathe new life into the Fabian Society, which evidently is more to their liking than Bolshevism. I suspect that most young people today are waiting with bated breath for the next big confrontation with capitalism as occurred during the Occupy movement and will have little interest in ringing doorbells for some Democrat, DSA member or not.

I only wish that if they are going to recruit V.I. Lenin to their sorry project, they’d at least respect what he actually wrote rather than jamming words into his mouth. He deserves better.


In a comment below, Dave Grosser denied that Ben Ewen-Campen ran as a Democrat. I guess this was photoshopped or something.

Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 6.45.43 PM

December 13, 2017

In the Fade

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Last Sunday I took part in the yearly awards meeting of NY Film Critics Online. The winners are here. I was generally okay with the choices except for “Mudbound” and “Lady Bird” that I considered overrated. But then again, I consider capitalism overrated.

When it came time to vote for best foreign language film, I had to ask a colleague what “In the Fade” was about, the hands down winner. He told me it was about a German woman named Katja seeking justice after a bomb kills her Kurdish husband and their young son. Oh, that one. I had completely forgotten about it. That’s what happens when you get to be my age.

At first, the cops conduct an investigation assuming that the man was killed for political reasons but change gears after it becomes clear that he was no activist despite his Kurdish origins. Next they surmise that it might have been a hit carried out by the Turkish, Kurdish or Albanian mafia since he had once spent four years in prison for a drug trafficking conviction. Katja tells them that he would not jeopardize their lives by dealing drugs. She added that she suspected it was Nazis who set off the bomb on the doorstep of the street level tax processing office he worked out of in a neighborhood that was home to many immigrants.

It turns out that she was right.

I am glad that my NYFCO colleagues chose this film otherwise I probably never would have bothered to watch the DVD that I received from Magnolia, the film distribution company behind it. I have seen nearly every film made by the Turkish director Fatih Akin who grew up in Germany. Except for “The Edge of Heaven”, I had rated them all as “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes but was put off by the mediocre 55% “fresh” rating there for “In the Fade”. As a rule of thumb, I generally find any film with those kinds of numbers not worth bothering with, even if directed by someone for whom I generally have a high regard.

While I still might have picked “Happy End” and “Other Side of Hope” over it, it is top-notch Fatih Akin and it doesn’t get much better than that. Akin is a politically committed filmmaker who often gets bad reviews because he defies conventional tastes. For example, his “The Cut” also received a mediocre rating (58%) on Rotten Tomatoes but I saw it anyhow since it was about the Armenian genocide. Needless to say, when a Turkish filmmaker makes such a film, he deserves our support. Not only was it a much-needed plea for justice for the victims, it was also a well-made film as I pointed out at the time.

I will have some comments on the negative reviews of “In the Fade” made by some leftist critics after making my own case for the film that should be available as VOD before long.

Most of the film is set in a courtroom where the lawyer defending the accused neo-Nazi husband and wife team is as disgusting as them. Since there is a mountain of evidence linking them to the bombing, his defense revolves around making Katja look bad. In her testimony, she identifies the wife who left a bicycle carrying explosives in front of her husband’s office. This links her to her husband whose garage was filled with bomb-making material.

Early on, even before the bombing, we learn that Katja liked to get high. There is nothing genteel about her. Her body is covered with tattoos and she likes to dress in all-black punk rock attire. It was natural for her to hook up her Kurdish husband since he sold drugs on her college campus. Despite their rebellious appearance, both had lived staid middle-class lives for many years even if that includes recreational drugs.

The lawyer defending the neo-Nazis successfully wins an acquittal by making the case that she was too high on the day of her husband’s death to really be able to recollect the appearance of the woman who planted the bomb. Devastated by the decision, Katja then begins to explore ways that she could make them pay for their crime even though that entails becoming a killer herself.

Katja is played by Diane Kruger and would have earned my nomination for best actress of the year if I had seen the film in advance of the NYFCO meeting. Torn apart by both grief and rage, her character requires her to convey those emotions without melodrama. Kruger delivers such a performance in spades.

Fatih Akin decided to write the screenplay for “In the Fade” after seeing a similar miscarriage of justice in Germany. In 2000, die Dönermorde–the kebab murders—began taking place in immigrant neighborhoods just like the one depicted in “In the Fade”. The Guardian reported:

In the beginning, they were known as die Dönermorde – the kebab murders. The victims had little in common, apart from immigrant backgrounds and the modest businesses they ran. The first to die was Enver Şimşek, a 38-year-old Turkish-German man who ran a flower-import company in the southern German town of Nuremberg. On 9 September 2000, he was shot inside his van by two gunmen, and died in hospital two days later.

The following June, in the same city, 49-year-old Abdurrahim Özüdoğru was killed by two bullets while helping out after hours in a tailor’s shop. Two weeks later, in Hamburg, 500km north, Süleyman Taşköprü, 31, was shot three times and died in his greengrocer’s shop. Two months later, in August 2001, greengrocer Habil Kılıç, 38, was shot twice in his shop in the Munich suburbs.

The victims were Turks living in Germany just like Fatih Akin and the killers were members of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) that the cops failed to pursue. Instead, just as was the case in Akin’s film, they tried to persuade Enver Şimşek’s widow that the Turkish mafia was responsible.

The assassinations continued in seven different German cities for six years and the cops were unable (or refused to entertain the possibility) that they were connected. Like the southern cops during the days of Jim Crow (and, sadly, even now), there were well-grounded suspicions that the German cops were looking the other way when the racist attacks were taking place. A member of the German intelligence service was at the scene when one of the murders took place and others involved in the investigation were German KKK members.

In 2007, as investigators began to suspect ties between the cops and the NSU, the police department shredded files pertaining to the recruitment of fascists as snitches. Were they covering up evidence that such recruits were actually being used as death squads? After Der Spiegel learned that the officials ordering the shredding were in the BfV (the German counterpart of the FBI), it wrote:

For intelligence officials, investigations into the files have become increasingly embarrassing. The documents make clear just how chaotic the situation related to purging and exchanging files had become. This has resulted, for example, in discrepancies between the list of files that BfV officials sent to Saxony and the list of those that have now turned up there.

These new reports might very well lead the parliamentarians on the investigative committee to wonder whether additional files with possible relevance to the NSU trio have also been destroyed. One list itemizing the deleted files indicates that a comparatively large number of dossiers related to right-wing extremism were destroyed after the terror cell had resurfaced. The itemization says that there were seven cases of document destruction in November 2011, 12 for December and seven more in early 2012.

Given the rise of the neo-Nazi AfD in Germany, Akin’s film is not just ancient history. It is a warning that new threats to immigrants can be posed by shadowy ties between the state and those determined to reinstate the Third Reich.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see how so many Rotten Tomatoes critics failed to appreciate “In the Fade” when it clearly lived up to the honor given to it by NYFCO members. I was stunned to see that two of them were leftists like me, or at least claimed to be.

Dennis Schwartz complained, “What is not mentioned is that the greater threat to the population is from Islamist extremists and not neo-Nazis.” Huh? Maybe if Schwartz were a Muslim in Germany, where AfD is on the rise, he’d have a different outlook. Out of curiosity, I checked Schwartz’s background and to my astonishment discovered this: “The critic who influenced him the most was Walter Benjamin, not a film critic but one of the truly great literary critics of the 20th century. The lesson to be learned from him and other serious critics is that all true art is subversive and unsettling.” Maybe Schwartz wasn’t aware that Benjamin killed himself rather than being returned to Nazi-controlled France in 1940? Talk about the betrayal of the semi-intellectuals.

Then we have Richard Porton who complained about Akin being “heavy-handed”. His “ultra-schematic plot foregrounds evil neo-Nazis with a yen for terrorism”. Porton a NYU film studies professor who wrote “Film and the Anarchist Imagination” for Verso and articles for leftie publications like Cineaste and In These Times. Since Porton has also written that “Battle of Algiers” is one of the 10 greatest films ever made, I wonder why he didn’t complain about it featuring evil French officers torturing Algerian captives. On second thought, who cares? The one thing that “In the Fade” cannot be accused of is heavy-handedness. Despite the temptation presented by the neo-Nazi characters and the failure of the criminal justice system in Germany, this is a film mostly about the emotional turmoil of a widow. I didn’t have to be lectured about the evils of fascism but I did get a lot out of the dramatic recreation of what one of the widows of NSU’s victims had to endure. That’s why Akin chose the words of the song “In the Fade” by Queens of the Stone Age for the title of his film rather than those of Martin Niemoller of “First they came for the Jews” fame.

Cracks in the ceiling, crooked pictures in the hall
Countin’ and breathin’, I’m leaving here tomorrow
They don’t know I never do you any good
Laughin’ is easy, I would if I could

Ain’t gonna worry
Just live till you die, want to drown
With nowhere to fall into the arms of someone
There’s nothing to save I know
You live till you die

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