Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 14, 2017


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,former Soviet Union — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

Corruption and Poverty in Bulgaria

Bykov has described his film as a treatment of the central dilemma facing his country: conscience versus survival. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York is a Bulgarian film titled “Glory” that is closely related to Bykov’s film thematically. Like Nima, Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a humble worker—a railway lineman who we first see setting his watch meticulously to a radio announcement before going off to work. This is important because linemen must be aware of the exact time to the second to avert oncoming trains.

After synchronizing his watch, Petkov meets up with his co-workers on the railroad tracks they are assigned to maintain. Walking a few dozen or so yards ahead of them, he stumbles across a most remarkable find: millions of dollars in Bulgarian currency strewn across the tracks—its origin unknown. Unlike the rest of his crew or most Bulgarians for that matter, Petkov thought the natural thing to do was contact the police.

His altruistic act turned him into an instant celebrity, something that the state railway corporation—the Bulgarian Amtrak in effect—decided to turn to its advantage. The head of its PR department is a woman named Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) who is the quintessential post-Communist hustler. Her main interest is to make an amalgam of this most unusual worker’s idealistic behavior with that of the crooked top executives she serves.

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August 13, 2014

Qatar, Hamas and the Islamic State (IS): in defense of dialectics

Qatar: the heart of darkness?

Yesterday I received email from a Bard College graduate:

Could this be Gaza and the West Bank under Hamas?


The Vice article was about IS brutality. So the implication was that Hamas constituted the same kind of threat as IS. Now it should be said that the Old Bardian, as we like to refer to ourselves, votes Democrat and oscillates wildly between support for Palestinian rights and fear of Hamas.

But he does raise an interesting question. If Qatar and Turkey are behind both Hamas and IS, at least according to some pundits, how can you not oppose both? Indeed, if your methodology is based on formal logic, that is a foregone conclusion. Since Seymour Hersh is the source for many of the Qatar and company as an orchestrator of jihadist terror in the Middle East reports, it is worth reminding ourselves of his latest LRB article:

The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.

Now it should be said that the evil trio has been reduced to an evil duo ever since Saudi Arabia ended up on the side of the angels against IS. According to Business Insider, Saudi Arabia has asked Egypt and Pakistan to help patrol its borders against incursions from IS. The article cited The London Times: “The kingdom is calling in favors from Egypt and Pakistan. No one is certain what ISIS has planned, but it’s clear a group like this will target Mecca if it can. We expect them to run out of steam, but no one is taking any chances.” Adding to the abject failure of reality to live up to “anti-imperialist” projections, Saudi Arabia never had much use for Hamas. Along with Egypt and Jordan, it is the strongest supporter of IDF terror in Gaza next to AIPAC and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

It is not precluded that Qatar will also call upon Egypt and Pakistan for military assistance if ISIS is still around 9 years from now. Its deranged leader has warned FIFA that it would attack the 2022 World Cup games because soccer was “a deviation from Islam.”

Even more confusing is the newly announced pact between Iran and “the Great Satan” over the naming of a new prime minister in Iraq, who will be more effective against the IS threat. Enjoying a military embarrassment of riches, Iraq’s skies are now dotted with drones from the two nations only six months ago described by a thousand “anti-imperialist” websites as mortal enemies.

If Qatar is an archfiend threatening secular values and benign “national development” in Syria through its proxy war, what do we make of its willingness to back Hamas? Does that conform to “anti-imperialist” guidelines or are we dealing with a profound formal logic problem equal in its complexity to the Poincaré conjecture?

The evil duo—Qatar and Turkey—are not only the targets of daily Orwellian two minutes of hate organized by the “anti-imperialist” left but also Israel’s increasingly fascist state as the Times of Israel reported:

Qatar’s recently attempted to transfer funds for the salaries of Hamas civil servants in Gaza, following the formation of a Palestinian unity government, but was blocked by the United States, which pressured the Arab Bank not to process them. But former national security adviser Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror told The Times of Israel that the emirate’s funding for the organization’s terror apparatus, including tunnel diggers and rocket launchers, has continued unabated.

“Hamas currently has two ‘true friends’ in the world: Qatar and Turkey,” Amidror said. The small Gulf state is currently Hamas’s closest ally in the Arab world, after the movement’s relations with Egypt soured following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in June 2013. Qatar, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction and infrastructure projects in Gaza, is also home to the movement’s political leader Khaled Mashaal in Doha.

This is not to speak of Qatar’s role in funding al-Jazeera, the sole source of pro-Palestinian television coverage as well as some very good reporting on domestic and international news. Just go to their website and you fill find a hard-hitting article on Ferguson, Missouri that points out that “in 2013 nearly 90 percent of vehicles pulled over by Ferguson police were driven by African-Americans. The arrest rate was of those drivers was more than 10%, nearly double that of white drivers who were pulled over.” But if you evaluate Qatar solely based on which side it supports in Syria, then you will be forced to treat it as a mortal enemy as MRZine did.

Turkey’s Prime Minister, of course, is everybody’s favorite villain with his suppression of the Gezi park rebellion and his allowing jihadists to infiltrate Syria, not to speak of his corruption and attacks on journalism, either print or electronic.

But there are those times when he has the kind of backbone every other politician lacks. It was Erdoğan after all who put the power of the Turkish state at the disposal of the flotilla sent to Gaza. He has also threatened to send Turkish warships to defend the next flotilla, although I suspect that this is bluster more than anything. But if he did, what would we make of that? How can someone be on the side of the angels (Hamas) and the devil (IS) at the same time—leaving aside the question of whether he ever had much to do with that gang?

On August 22, 2013 the Financial Times printed a letter that served as a cautionary note against oversimplifying the Middle East:

A short guide to the Middle East

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

That letter prompted the blogger Big Pharaoh to diagram the relationships:

Screen shot 2014-08-13 at 2.53.14 PM

If anything, the letter and the diagram are out of date. To keep track of the latest developments, you’d need a super-computer of the sort that the NSA uses to snoop on our email. But this matters little to people who are bent on dividing the world into two spheres, which are not only mutually exclusive but a taxonomic guide to determining where a government or armed movement fall in terms of their historical role.

For much of the left, there is a driving compulsion to reduce world politics to a binary opposition between Good and Evil. It is understandable why they would do this since the Cold War shaped our consciousness for 45 years until the end of the Soviet bloc and even continues to do so in a rather problematic way. In 1971, when I was a member of the Trotskyist movement, we condemned the Kremlin for doling out aid to the Vietnamese as from an eyedropper as we used to put it but at the same time understood that Soviet aid was critical.

Now in 2014 the left carries on as if Putin was Brezhnev and Assad was Ho Chi Minh. Just as long as the USA is still the “evil empire”, syllogistic reasoning will prevail. 1) The United States is the evil empire; 2) The United States supports the Syrian rebels (whether or not that is true); 3) Therefore, the Syrian rebels are part of the evil empire.

So what’s going on here? I have been critical of Trotsky’s adoption of Zinovievist organizational principles that have had a baleful effect on the revolutionary movement even to the current day, but I find myself coming back to his writings when it comes to the question of dialectics.

Oddly enough, the failure to see world politics dialectically was a failing of both James Burnham and the “anti-imperialist” left today. Marx transformed Hegelian dialectics into an instrument of revolutionary analysis. In almost every major watershed debate on the left, there has been a need to return to dialectics in order for the debate to receive a proper resolution. In Trotsky’s day, the fundamental difference was over the Soviet Union that Trotsky ultimately refused to identify as “socialist”. Whenever I ran into syllogistic attempts to define the USSR over the years, I always came back to how Trotsky put it when challenged to subsume it under fixed categories: “Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes – yes, and no – no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it.”

That would certainly apply to the Middle East today: “There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it.” Trotsky was referring to the Soviet Union, a society that incorporated some of the most retrograde political aspects that on the surface resembled fascism with some of the most progressive, including a planned economy. For the foreseeable future, the Middle East will have many contradictory aspects that will make the USSR look like a grade school exercise by comparison. It will continue to perplex some for being a backdrop for a religious zealotry that can cut both ways. It can serve rulers who seek to reinforce their rule through the authoritarian use of the Qur’an as it also serves the fighting spirit of men and women determined to put an end to authoritarian rule. It would be best in some ways that religion played less of a rule, thus allowing class divisions to become more transparent. But we have to start with reality, not wishes—at least if we want to influence the course of historical events.

August 10, 2013

The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear

Filed under: Film,former Soviet Union — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

The title of “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear”, a documentary that opened yesterday at Cinema Village in NYC (see http://icarusfilms.com/playdates.html#disa for dates in other cities), refers to a young and attractive Georgian woman’s longing for an end to her misery. She would like to see a machine that could make unhappiness disappear forever. Or as Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it:

To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.

Although our Georgia of peach tree fame and nativist infamy is also a place that would drive one to self-annihilation, first-time director Tinatin Gurchiani’s film is set in her native former Soviet republic. The premise of the film is supremely simple. It is structured as an audition where Georgians of all ages, but mostly drawn from the youth, tell the director why they should be in her film. Those that are selected are followed back to their native towns or hamlets to flesh out their stories, mostly of dashed hopes and personal tragedy.

While every tale is deeply poignant, I found a young man’s representative of what the Georgian nation must be suffering as a whole. His name is Gocha but his friends call him Moqmeda, the Georgian word for “Action”. He is not exactly sure why they call him that but one gathers that it has something to do with his military training and scrapes with the law that have left him on probation and a military career in doubt.

Gocha’s father was killed in “the war”, a reference to an event certainly obscure to most Americans, even after he adds that it was the Abkhazian War. Generally Americans only care about wars when their own children or tax money is involved. The war in question occurred in 2008 when Russia and Georgia fought for control of the contested territories. It took only five days for the Russian military to steamroll over the vastly outnumbered Georgian forces that included Gocha’s father. His father never came home, as he explained to the director; he does not know where his grave is or whether he is dead or alive. This does not prevent him from following in his father’s footsteps, taking “arms against a sea of troubles” in Hamlet’s words.

Other than trying vainly to find work, Gocha’s energies are devoted to keeping up the spirits of his brother who is serving 25 years for robbery. He visits their mother and father, who are separated, to prevail upon them to write him letters in prison. They appear skeptical over whether this is worth their time. He then visits a young woman who his brother only met once when she was 13 and for whom he carries a torch. Now 18, she is even more skeptical than the parents over whether writing a letter will matter very much. A sense of futility pervades the entire film. This segment of the film ends with an exterior shot of the prison, with a plaintive Georgian ballad playing in the background.

Despite the relentlessly downbeat character of the film, there are many passages that are exultant, including scenes of people tilling crops or celebrating a marriage. Key to the film’s ability to engage the audience is director Tinatin Gurchiani’s keen sense of character. Despite the fact that her subjects are most ordinary, she takes those aspects of their lives that are extraordinary and weaves magic from them.

In an interview with blogger Ralph Hälbig at Georgia & South Caucasus, Gurchiani spoke about her interviewees:

How ready they are to expose their basic core – their desire, despair and dreams. They act in front of the camera as in front of the court of God – just really, honest, naked, helpless and intense.  It was their one chance and they could say only the most important truths in their heart, the most essential pieces of their soul. And they try – with the help of the magic of cinema and the camera they are standing in front of – to create moments of eternity for themselves, out of their ordinary human lives.

Georgia had the misfortune of embarking on a “Rose Revolution” that entailed a war over repossession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A “reformist” president made a foolish decision to launch a small-scale invasion in the hopes that the West would come to his assistance. If there’s anything that should be obvious about recent American-Russian relations, it is that realpolitik is the guiding principle rather than “humanitarian” principles.

One can understand why a young Georgian might long for a machine that can make everything disappear since the tiny republic has neither the economic clout nor the geopolitical importance to make it a worthwhile client state.

Its misfortune was to be distinct religiously, culturally, and ethnically from both the Great Russian power to the North and to the Islamic networks to the South. In the infancy of the Soviet republic, there was a deep commitment to the economic and national rights of a “lesser” people. Ironically, it was the erosion of this commitment that led Lenin to organize opposition to Stalin from his sick bed.

In the early 1920s some Soviet leaders only saw the “chauvinist” side of the Georgian republic that manifested itself during the 2008 war but Lenin warned about going too far and exercising Great Russian domination of the sort that prevailed under the Czar. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had been cobbled together into a Transcaucasian Soviet Republic, even though the Georgian leaders sought full-member status within the Soviet Union. In July of 1921 Stalin, a Georgian by birth, arrived in Tbilisi to read them the riot act. Sergo Ordzhonikidze, a close ally of Stalin, used his fists on a Georgian leader during a heated argument, something that set off an alarm bell for Lenin.

Shortly before his death, Lenin wrote an article in December 1922 on the Georgian problems that sums up not only the small republic’s bleak future but that of the Soviet experiment as well:

It is said that a united apparatus [a reference to the Transcaucasian entity] was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?

There is no doubt that that measure should have been delayed somewhat until we could say that we vouched for our apparatus as our own. But now, we must, in all conscience, admit the contrary; the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hodge-podge and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been “busy” most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.

Took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil? Truer words were never spoken.

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