Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2008

Latin America and the dependency theory debate

Filed under: Introduction to Marxism class,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

After Robert Brenner wrote his attack on dependency theory in the 1977 NLR, the impact was immediate. Marxists in the academy found the appeal to return to a class-based Marxism very seductive, especially among Latin American specialists. The Marxist-oriented journal called Latin American Perspectives became consumed with debates between supporters of Robert Brenner and Andre Gunder Frank almost immediately and the summer and fall issues of 1981 were combined to discuss the Dependency and Marxism debate.

Unfortunately, the archives of Latin American Perspectives are only available to those with a subscription to JSTOR, but I have selected two fairly representative items from the two sides for your review.

John Weeks, a supporter of the Brenner approach even though he does not mention Brenner by name (others do), contributed an article titled “The Differences Between Materialist Theory and Dependency Theory and Why They Matter”. Before presenting his article and my interspersed comments, I want to offer some personal reflections even though their relationship to the matter at hand might seem tangential.

In 1990 I organized a debate on behalf of the NY Nicaragua Network just prior to the Nicaraguan elections that would result in the FSLN being voted out of office. It was not hard to figure out that Paul Berman was the ideal candidate to speak against the FSLN. This Village Voice self-described anarchist (he now calls himself a liberal) had been writing attacks on the FSLN for a number of years, all in the spirit of casting the Sandinistas as enemies of true working-class socialism. Berman evolved into a cold war type liberal subsequently and gained some notoriety as a “leftist” supporter of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our good friend Richard Seymour has a chapter on Berman in his forthcoming book from Verso that I am awaiting with bated breath.

For the pro-FSLN perspective, I gave Michael Moore a call and he was more than happy to debate Berman. Just a year or so earlier Moore had been fired from Mother Jones for refusing to print one of Berman’s hatchet jobs on the FSLN and was looking forward to a chance to nail him. Although I cannot remember exactly why we decided not to go with Moore, we instead extended an invitation to John Weeks on the advice of NACLA, the journal on Latin America that had not yet degenerated into the kind of mixture of civil society bullshit and State Department liberalism that fills its pages today.

Berman spoke first and was obviously well-prepared, even if his ideas were bogus.

When Weeks began to speak (I was chairing the meeting), I was astonished to see that he did not have anything written down and just “winged it” for 15 minutes. The gist of his presentation was that the FSLN was no different than the PRI in Mexico and there was never any reason for imperialism to be so determined to overthrow it. He characterized it as bureaucratic and mildly social democratic, etc. In other words, in accepting our invitation to defend the FSLN, this knucklehead did not have the common decency to state that he was some kind of ultraleft opponent of the FSLN. Following the meeting, a group of us headed over to a nearby bar where a savvy veteran of the Central America solidarity movement whispered to me that Weeks was some kind of Maoist.

The reason Weeks was so dismissive of the Sandinista revolution was that it was not “class” oriented enough for him. There were far too few industrial workers in the vanguard and far too many small ranchers and members of the “informal economy” to satisfy the litmus test of those who had mastered their Grundrisse.

The main difference between the dependency theorists and those influenced by Brenner was over the question-in my opinion-whether national oppression was a viable category in Marxist terms. I have written about this at some length here and invite you to have a look at some point.

Continue reading

August 13, 2008

More Mariátegui

I have posted 3 more chapters from José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list. This makes 5 out of 7 from arguably his most important work that is both out of print and not represented on the Internet until now. Thank god for the scanner. Let’s hope that the University of Texas Press has no objection to their intellectual property rights being violated. They, after all, allowed this seminal Marxist text to languish.

Chapter 2 is titled “The Problem of the Indian” and serves as a kind of introduction to the much longer chapter 3 on “The Problem of Land”. Suffice it to say that for Mariátegui the 2 “problems” are interrelated as demonstrated by the very first sentence: “Any treatment of the problem of the Indian–written or verbal–that fails or refuses to recognize it as a socio-economic problem is but a sterile, theoretical exercise destined to be completely discredited.” He goes further and identifies describes the “socio-economic problem” as revolving around land: “A fresh approach to the problem of the Indian, therefore, ought to be much more concerned with the consequences of the land tenure system than with drawing up protective legislation.” To understand how the oppression of the Indian is related to land tenure, I direct your attention to chapter 3.

Chapter 5 deals with “The Religious Factor” and deserves to be required reading for anybody who is trying to understand the issues being posed by political Islam, “liberation theology” in Latin America, etc. Using the Incan religion as a point of departure, Mariátegui has some very interesting things to say about Catholicism, Protestantism and the rise of capitalism.

For Mariátegui, Catholicism was the handmaiden to the Spanish sword, which in comparison to Protestantism was inimical to capitalist growth. Clearly, the influence of Max Weber is at work in his thinking:

In general, the experience of the West furnishes concrete evidence of the close association of capitalism and Protestantism. Protestantism appears in history as the spiritual yeast of the capitalist process. The Protestant Reformation contained the essence, the seed, of the liberal state. Protestantism as a religious movement and liberalism as a political trend were related to the development of the factors of a capitalist economy. Facts support this argument. Capitalism and industrialism have flourished nowhere else as they have in the Protestant countries. The capitalist economy has reached its peak in England, the United States, and Germany. Within these countries, people of Catholic faith have instinctively clung to their rustic tastes and habits. (Catholic Bavaria is also rural.) No Catholic country has reached a high level of industrialization.

I don’t agree with this. In my view, the “backwardness” of Catholic nations in Europe is only relative. Mexico City, for example, was about as industrialized as Boston in 1776. I cover this in depth here.

That being said, it must be acknowledged that Mariátegui—as always—is capable of seeing both sides of an argument:

Neoscholastics insist on disputing or minimizing the influence of the Reformation on capitalist development, claiming that Thomism already had laid down the principles of bourgeois economics.18 Sorel has acknowledged the services rendered to Western civilization by Saint Thomas in his realistic approach to the dogma in science. He has especially stressed the Thomist concept that “human law cannot change the legal nature of things, which is derived from their economic content.”19 But if Saint Thomas brought Catholicism to this level of understanding economics, the Reformation forged the moral weapons of the bourgeois revolution, opening the way to capitalism. The neoscholastic concept can be easily explained. Neothomism is bourgeois but not capitalist. Just as socialism is not the same thing as the proletariat, capitalism is not the same thing as the bourgeoisie. Capitalism is the order, the civilization, the spirit born of the bourgeoisie, which existed long before and only later gave its name to an entire historical era.

Finally, on the question of religion, Mariátegui neatly dissects the liberal anti-clericalism of his day, which anticipated the bleatings of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens today:

But capitalism has lost its revolutionary spirit and so this thesis has been overtaken by events.32 Socialism, according to the conclusions of historical materialism, not to be confused with philosophical materialism, considers that ecclesiastical forms and religious doctrines are produced and sustained by the socio-economic structure. Therefore, it is concerned with changing the latter and not the former. Socialism regards mere anti-clerical activity as a liberal bourgeois pastime. In Europe, anti-clericalism is characteristic of countries where the Protestant Reformation has not unified civil and religious conscience and where political nationalism and Roman universalism live in either open or latent conflict, which compromise can moderate but not halt or resolve.

Finally, chapter 6 on “Regionalism and Centralism”, although written about Peru, applies equally to Bolivia today. In the 1920s, Peru faced the same geographical-political divide facing Evo Morales today. Lima, the capital, was home to wealthy white descendants of Spanish colonizers just as is the 4 secessionist regions in Bolivia and was situated on the lowlands facing the Pacific. In both Peru and Bolivia, the indigenous peoples lived in the highlands. And in both instances, class politics tended to be reflected in debates over regionalism versus centralism. In the passage below, Mariátegui refers to gamonalismo,. a term that he uses interchangeably with feudalism. As I have said elsewhere, I don’t find the term feudalism that useful in describing the upper classes in Latin America but on everything else I am in accord with Mariátegui:

Assuming that “the problem of the Indian” and the “agrarian question” take priority over any problem relative to the mechanism of the regime if not to the structure of the state, it is absolutely impossible to consider the question of regionalism or, more precisely, of administrative decentralization from standpoints not subordinate to the need to solve in a radical and organic way the first two problems. A decentralization that is not directed toward this goal is not even worth discussion.

And decentralization in itself, simply as a political and administrative reform, would not signify any progress toward solution of the “problem of the Indian” and the “problem of land,” which fundamentally are one and the same. On the contrary, decentralization carried out for no other reason than to authorize a degree of autonomy to the regions or departments would increase the power of gamonalismo against any solution in the interest of the Indian masses. To become convinced of this, it is enough to ask oneself what caste, what class, what category opposes the redemption of the Indian. There is only one, categorical, answer: gamonalismo, feudalism, bossism. Therefore, is there any doubt that the more autonomous a regional administration of gamonales and caciques, the more they would sabotage and resist any effective attempt to redress the wrongs done to the Indian?

There can be no illusions. The decent groups in the cities will never prevail against gamonalismo in regional administration. The experience of more than a century has taught us what to expect of the possibility that in the near future a democratic system will function in Peru that will fulfill, at least on paper, the Jacobin principle of “popular sovereignty.” The rural masses, or the Indian communities in any case, would remain outside suffrage and its results. Therefore, even if only because the absent are never right—les absents ont toujours tort—the organisms and authorities that would be created “through election,” but without their vote, would have neither the ability nor the knowledge to do them justice. Who would be so naive as to imagine that, within the present economic and political situation, the regions would be governed by “universal suffrage”?

Read chapters 2, 5 and 6 in their entirety here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/

July 27, 2008


Filed under: Africa,Latin America,science — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

I was president of the Tecnica board in the late 1980s through 1992 when it went belly-up. Relying heavily on donations from liberal and radical foundations, it was victimized by the FSLN getting voted out of office in 1990. Nicaragua was no longer sexy. We had already launched a technical aid program for the ANC and the frontline states but it was not well-established enough to survive the downturn in funding.

In 1984 I went down to Nicaragua to observe the elections with a delegation from the Guardian newspaper, a weekly radical publication that went out of business in 1992. Nothing in my experience in the SWP prepared us for what a living revolution would be like. The same kind of peasants who were fighting for land in El Salvador were now enjoying a much better life on cooperatives in liberated Nicaragua. Health care was now universally available and literacy programs were making people real participants in the political life of the country.

When one of the members of my delegation found out that I was a computer programmer, he slipped me a leaflet that some people in the Bay Area had put together. They were looking for computer programmers and other skilled professionals to work in Nicaragua. After the Sandinistas had taken over, a lot of the better paid workers had fled to Miami just as had happened in Cuba after 1959. As soon as I got back from Nicaragua, I called the number on the leaflet and spoke to Michael Urmann, an economist who had launched the project called Tecnica. I agreed to go back to Nicaragua for two weeks with a delegation of about 15 other technical specialists and give some classes on structured programming techniques. I brushed up on my high school Spanish and returned with my course notes.

I ended up teaching at the Central Bank in Nicaragua, their version of the Federal Reserve. About one out of four students seemed like committed Sandinistas but the rest were like young people anywhere. They simply wanted a better life. Like young computer programmers everywhere, the job was a means to an end.

I was all set to take on a new job at the Ministry of Construction supporting the largest mainframe in the country, which was about 1/10th the size of the computers I was used to working on at home. The people at this agency were more political than at the Central Bank and I was knocked out to hear revolutionary folk songs being sung over lunch. Things were never like that at my jobs at Houston and Boston banks.

On my last night in Nicaragua, Michael Urmann persuaded me to go back to New York and start a chapter of Tecnica there. At that point they were primarily based in the Bay Area and he was trying to build a national organization. He had hopes that we could eventually become a kind of radical version of the Peace Corps. He needed a political veteran like me to get kick-start things on the East Coast. Largely in recognition of my organizing skills, I was named President of Tecnica after it became incorporated as a nonprofit.

In trips out to the West Coast, I got to know Michael Urmann well. Like me, he was a veteran of the sectarian left and around the same age as me. As a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor party, he went to work in a warehouse in the 1960s long before the SWP made its “turn”. After a few months of backbreaking work with little to show for it politically, he dropped out of the PLP and went back to grad school. We had lots of laughs when we exchanged stories about factory work. We also laughed at the absurdity of turf wars between the Maoists and the Trotskyists in the 1960s. Like Peter Camejo, we had moved on to a more sensible place.

The project flourished through most of the late 1980s. Every month we sent down about twenty volunteers to work with Nicaraguan agencies, including the engineer who had responsibility for repairing electrical pylons blown up by the contras.

We also worked with a young American engineer named Ben Linder who found his way down to Nicaragua on his own. We raised money and provided some technical assistance for a small-scale hydroelectric project he had initiated in contra-infested northern Nicaragua.

On April 28, 1987 Ben was killed by contras while working on the small-scale hydroelectric dam that was his pet project. It sent shock waves through the movement and drove home the risks of working in Nicaragua. As a sign that we would not be intimidated, volunteer applications doubled in the months following Ben’s murder.

We received another shock the very same month. FBI agents went to the personnel offices at the workplace of twelve returned Tecnica volunteers and called them in for interviews in front of their boss. They were told that Tecnica was at the center of an espionage ring that was running high technology out of Nicaragua to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Anybody who had ever been to Nicaragua would realize how ridiculous this charge was. There was only one elevator in the entire country.

A number of important newspapers and politicians condemned the investigation and forced the FBI to end its harassment. This opening paragraph from a May 19 1987 Washington Post editorial was typical:

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation, including Michael Urmann. We were to meet with the African National Congress and leaders of some of the “frontline” states, including Mozambique, in order to see if an expansion of our volunteer program into Africa was feasible.

Since the ANC was still in exile in this point (apartheid was on the ropes but not ended), we ended up in Lusaka, Zambia where most of the top officials lived, including Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa.

We were invited to his house for a meeting to figure out whether there was a basis for future work. Mbeki lived in a two story house in a rather upscale neighborhood that was unlike the rest of the city. I noticed a Mercedes-Benz in the driveway.

His life-style was different from the average Zambian’s. On the way over to his house in a cab, Urmann asked the driver why so many office buildings were uncompleted. Since housing was one of his academic interests, such matters were always uppermost in his mind. The cabbie glared at him and said, “The buildings are not finished because you people took all the money with you.”

After our discussion with Mbeki ended, his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC.

Me: Mrs. Mbeki, you need to put in a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech.

Zanele: What is the B drive?

Me: It is right here (I pointed to the slot.) Let me take care of it for you. (I formatted the diskette and got everything in order.) You are all set now.

Zanele: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. I was so desperate.

I felt like my existence had finally been vindicated. Other people would be chosen to make monumental speeches. My purpose was to make sure that the speech would not disappear in some technical black hole.

On June 10, 1987, a couple of months after Ben Linder’s murder and the FBI sweep, NY Newsday did a big story on Nicaragua activists and included a mini-profile on me. The author, a likeable fellow named Jonathan Mandell who was clearly sympathetic, wrote about me:

Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.

I can’t even remember what point I was trying to make at the time. Was I trying to say that I was not some stupid sectarian blathering about revolution? Or was I just trying to make sure that Goldman did not decide to fire me after the article appeared?

Goldman did eventually get rid of me but it had nothing to do with politics, but the need to cut costs after the stock market crash in 1987–although I suppose that this is political as well. After 3 years of consulting I ended up at Columbia University where I lived happily ever after.

January 18, 2008

A sectarian version of the lessons of Nicaragua

Filed under: Latin America,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Typical Nicaraguan home: Permanent Revolution
could have brought peace and prosperity, however

As somebody who was very involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was curious to see what Claudio Villas had to say in an article titled “Nicaragua: Lessons of a country that did not finish its revolution” that appears on the In Defense of Marxism website. For those who are not familiar with the Internationalist Marxist Tendency (IMT) that produces this website, a word or two of introduction might be necessary.

The IMT is a fairly orthodox Trotskyist grouping that is the result of a split by the late Ted Grant and Alan Woods from the so-called Militant Tendency now led by Peter Taaffe. Both groups project themselves as the core members of a Fourth International that will supposedly vindicate Leon Trotsky’s political legacy. Neither group has shown the slightest interest in rethinking what the Bolshevik experience might mean in a context other than turn-of-the-century Czarist Russia, but the Grant-Woods tendency has demonstrated an enthusiasm for the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela that does not fit exactly into the October 1917 template.

Villas states that his article studies “the lessons of the Nicaraguan Revolution” in order to help “understand the ongoing processes in Venezuela today.” As becomes obvious in no time at all, Nicaragua becomes one of those negative examples that the Trotskyist movement dotes on. Forever wagging its finger at the mass movement, it assumes that calling attention to a betrayal is conducive to correct revolutionary practice. This is what I call the subway preacher school of Marxism. Once a week or so, I get stuck on the number one train going up to Columbia University with a free-lance preacher who lectures the subway car about the perils of sin. Let me put it this way, preaching against sin or reformist betrayal might make the preacher feel good but it hardly changes people’s behavior.

I was struck by the similarities between Villas’s article and those I have read about Cuba in the Trotskyist press, which revolve around the incapacity and unwillingness of the guerrillas to link up to the working class. As one example, he writes, “For the first time, the workers in the cities mobilised in a massive and independent manner with their own political slogans. But because there was no revolutionary leadership of the workers’ movement this meant that all the attention and expectations of the working class became focused on the FSLN, in spite of the fact that the Sandinistas only had 500 armed guerrillas.”

Keeping in mind that the total population of Nicaragua in the 1970s was about 3 million, an army of 500 combatants would amount to something like 50,000 in a country the size of the USA. What are the chances that a rebel army this size could be put together without a massive and powerful movement in the cities? Next to zero, I would say.

Part one of Villas’s article is filled with idealist errors that are hardly worth commenting on. He analyzes everything that went wrong in Nicaragua as a function of an incorrect theory, namely a belief in the progressive bourgeoisie that the FSLN picked up from the CP. It includes a patronizing swipe at both Augusto Sandino and Carlos Fonseca, who launched the FSLN in a bid to consummate Sandino’s struggle against imperialism in the 1920s. Both men, unlike the Grant-Woods tendency, believed in collaborating with the “national-colonial bourgeoisie”. For his part, Villas understands the way forward even though the misguided reformists will not listen:

The extinguishing of capitalism in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949 and in Cuba in 1960 demonstrated that social and economic development in the underdeveloped countries could only be achieved on a non-capitalist economic basis, in other words, on a socialist economic basis that involved a break with private property and the taking over of the means of production and finance. There are no exceptions to this law.

When you reduce this paragraph to its essence, you will discover that it contains a tautology that can be reduced to a few words: “Socialism can only be achieved through socialist revolution”. Keeping in mind that everybody on the socialist left, from Alan Woods to the late Gus Hall, agrees that socialism is the goal, the only real difference would be about the need for revolution and for resolute struggle against the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the intellectual recognition of such a task does not translate easily into practical politics.

For its over 75 year existence in Latin America (not to speak of the world), Trotskyism has remained a very marginal force, including in Nicaragua itself where voices similar to Villas’s were heard. Why did the FSLN gain the allegiance of the masses and why did the Trotskyists stay small and irrelevant? I would suggest that the appeal of both Sandino’s movement and the FSLN would be lost on the comrades of the In Defense of Marxism website, who have a mechanical understanding of Bolshevism. Leaving aside the question of the FSLN’s “reformism”, there is something quite different about the way that they got started and the way that Villas believes revolutionary parties should be built.

Unlike the IMT, the FSLN rooted its program and language in the Nicaraguan framework. By utilizing Augusto Sandino as a symbol of their revolution, they tapped into the psyche of the Nicaraguan people. They also eschewed the iconography of the Russian Revolution, which is a dead giveaway for a sectarian mindset. For example, the IMT home page has images of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky on the left and a hammer-and-sickle on the right. These images might appeal to those “in the know” but not to the average Nicaraguan peasant who went to church every Sunday. Whatever mistakes the FSLN made (and they were plenty), they did not make the mistake of such sectarianism. As we look back at the wreckage of the 20th century revolutionary movement, we have to come to terms with sins of commission and sins of omission–to return once again to the example of the subway preacher. Everybody knows that the CP’s have sins of commission to repent for, but what about the Trotskyists? By maintaining sectarian habits that keep them small and marginal, don’t they have a responsibility for the failures of revolutions to succeed in countries where they have a toehold? These “sins of omission” will prevent you from getting into communist heaven.

Part two of Villas’s article consists mainly of a lecture derived from Lenin’s “State and Revolution”, whose sage advice the FSLN refused to pay attention to. Instead of setting up Soviets, creating militias, nationalizing Nicaraguan industry, dividing up the land and extending the socialist revolution beyond their borders, they were content to operate what amounted to a Nicaraguan version of Kerensky’s government, which soon fell apart because of its inner contradictions. He writes:

The Sandinista leadership ruled the country together with the treacherous national bourgeoisie during the first months of the revolution. However, the economic crisis continued to get worse. But the bourgeoisie, by now reassured that the FSLN leadership had halted the revolution, left the economic problems for the Sandinistas to sort out. The first move of the FSLN in the National Reconstruction government (made up of just 5 people) was to install a State Council. This was a bourgeois-democratic body made up of 33 members in which all the social, political and trade union forces that accepted the Sandinista leadership were represented. In 1984, this parliament was transformed into the Nicaraguan National Assembly, by now a bourgeois parliament with a leftwing majority.

In this manner, the FSLN leadership preserved the traditional parliament and government structures of the capitalist state. Executive power was concentrated in the hands of the National Directorate which was chaired by the President of the Republic. In 1984 in a few days more than 80% of the population over the age of 16 registered on the electoral register. The election results revealed the huge support of the masses for the FSLN.

One of the most remarkable things about this entire exercise is the almost entirely absent reference to American imperialism and the terrorist army it funded and organized. The word “contra” is mentioned infrequently and not assigned its proper weight. Villas even blames the FSLN for giving backhanded support for the terrorists: “While the government was subsidising the private sector through tax cuts to get its support and collaboration, the capitalists boycotted the economy and supported the Contras!” He also thought that it was not really responsible for the collapse of the revolution: “Despite their treacherous role, it was not the fascist Contra paramilitaries that defeated the revolution. Popular resistance had demoralised the Contra and they had been cornered by the mid-1980s.” Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan people were so demoralized after a decade of war that they gave their vote to a candidate supported by the USA who promised an end to the war if and only if she was elected.

Most people in touch with reality understand that nothing can stop a country that is 100 times the size of a country it wants to destroy from its goal, including the correct application of the Permanent Revolution. In 2006, the GDP of Nicaragua was 5 billion dollars, while that of the USA was 13 trillion, or 13,000 billion. Try to imagine what an economy that is nearly 3000 times as large as the economy of its victim can do. Apparently, the IMT cannot. Even if the FSLN had carried out the strictures set down by Villas, the revolution was doomed from the beginning. It occurred at the very moment that the USSR was transforming itself into a capitalist society and had no interest in lining up with an enemy of its new friends in Washington, DC.

Villas’s solution to Nicaragua’s economic woes are laughable: “The narrowness of the productive base of a country as small as Nicaragua, which had fewer inhabitants than Caracas or Havana, meant that to stimulate genuine development what was required was a truly revolutionary initiative such as the expulsion of the bourgeoisie, and the establishment of a Socialist Federation with Cuba.” A Socialist Federation with Cuba? Good grief. It was just around this period that the socialist foundations of the Russian economy were being dismantled and support for Cuba cut off. This led to an “emergency period” that most commentators viewed as coming close to destroying Cuba as well as Nicaragua. Talk of a “socialist federation” is simply empty rhetoric. Words are cheap for a sectarian group that has never had responsibility anywhere in the world–and never will–for putting food on a worker’s table.

I have my own analysis of why the Sandinista revolution collapsed and would recommend that people read it in its entirety here.

I would only like to conclude with this excerpt:

Trotsky sharpened his insights as a participant and leader of the uprising of 1905, which in many ways was a dress-rehearsal for the 1917 revolution. He wrote “Results and Prospects” to draw the lessons of 1905. Virtually alone among leading Russian socialists, he rejected the idea that workers holding state power would protect private property:

“The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.”

Does not this accurately describe the events following the Bolshevik revolution in October, 1917? The workers took the socialist path almost immediately. If this alone defined the shape of revolutions to come, then Trotsky would appear as a prophet of the first magnitude.

Before leaping to this conclusion, we should consider Trotsky’s entire argument. Not only would the workers adopt socialist policies once in power, their ability to maintain these policies depended on the class-struggle outside of Russia, not within it. He is emphatic:

“But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”

While there is disagreement between Lenin and Trotsky on the exact character of the Russian revolution, there is none over the grim prospects for socialism in an isolated Russia. We must keep this uppermost in our mind when we consider the case of Nicaragua. Well-meaning Trotskyist comrades who castigate the Sandinistas for not carrying out permanent revolution should remind themselves of the full dimensions of Trotsky’s theory. According to this theory, Russia was a beachhead for future socialist advances. If these advances did not occur, Russia would perish. Was Nicaragua a beachhead also? If socialism could not survive in a vast nation as Russia endowed with immense resources, what were Nicaragua’s prospects, a nation smaller than Brooklyn, New York?

September 3, 2007

Salvador Allende

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:02 pm

Made in 2004, Patricio Guzmán’s “Salvador Allende” makes its debut at New York’s Anthology Film Archives from September 5-13. Guzmán, who fled Chile after Pinochet’s coup, also directed “The Battle for Chile,” a film trilogy on Allende’s government that I have not seen. Although there is a tendency to sidestep painful political lessons from the 1973 coup in “Salvador Allende,” I strongly urge New Yorkers to see it. It is an extremely moving account of the life and death of a socialist politician, whose career would seem to speak to the contemporary situation in Latin America, where a democratic transition to socialism seems to be unfolding to one degree or another in Venezuela. Given the hostility of the US and the upper classes in Allende’s Chile and Hugo Chavéz’s Venezuela, a documentary such as “Salvador Allende” offers much food for thought.

It is obvious from “Salvador Allende” and from reviews of “Battle for Chile” (a film that I have not seen) that Guzmán is a partisan of the Popular Unity government, a coalition of working class and bourgeois parties that campaigned successfully for Allende in 1970. Despite this, the film is not uncritical. In a gut-wrenching segment that occurs toward the end of the film, a group of worker-militants–now in advanced middle-age–think back ruefully on the period and wonder why they were so ill-prepared to resist the coup. One, barely holding back tears, says, “We should have done more to strengthen the cords.” As somebody who followed the events in Chile closely between 1970 and 1973, this reference was obscure even to me. What was a cord?

In the course of looking at some studies of the Popular Unity government days after seeing the film, I discovered the answer. Cord is the nickname for cordónes, the neighborhood and factory based committees that Chileans recognized as a form of “people’s power.” If organized and armed on a nation-wide basis, this institution and others like it could have successfully beaten back the coup. Unfortunately, Allende’s Socialist Party and the Communists were suspicious of the grass roots movement and relied almost exclusively on official state institutions such as parliament and the army to promote an agenda that while progressive stopped short of the elimination of private property.

“Salvador Allende” is filled with oblique references to this failure but focuses more on Allende the individual, whose tragic inability to remain in power obviously flows from his political roots. In one of the film’s very revealing interviews, the former mayor of Allende’s hometown Valparaiso, a self-described Communist and friend, states that Allende identified with the values of the French Revolution and never once defended Marxist ideas in private conversations, even though he was familiar with the literature. Another interviewee states that Allende’s earliest ideological influence was an Italian anarchist shoemaker. These two accounts add up to a portrait of somebody committed to the ideas of freedom, but not in the best position to realize them through the exercise of state power.

The film excels at bringing to life the long journey Allende made in Chilean politics. Contrary to the impression many people–including me–have of the Popular Unity government being something unique in Chilean history, the first popular front government was elected in 1938, a Latin American counterpart of the Spanish and French Socialist Party-led coalition governments. On that occasion, the 30 year old Allende became Minister of Health. Like Che Guevara, Allende was a trained physician. After the popular front was voted out of office, Allende continued to run for regional and national offices for the remainder of his political career. The film includes fascinating scenes of the young Allende speaking to crowds of working class people with joyful expressions on their face. If Allende lacked a clear vision of how their interests could be defended through the use of state power, he at least was always forceful about what those interests were.

If Allende was torn between revolutionary and reformist impulses, there was little doubt that his main coalition partners in the CP of Chile were far more dedicated to staying within the framework of bourgeois democracy and deferring to the rule of capital. On June 20, 1972, the NY Times editorialized:

President Allende has moved to resolve a severe crisis within his Popular Unity coalition in Chile by rejecting the radical counsel of his own Socialist party and adopting the more moderate and conciliatory approach urged by the Communists. In thus shifting back toward the center of Chile’s political spectrum, Dr. Allende has reduced the danger of large-scale civil strife and given his revamped Government its best chance to revive a sagging economy.

The Communists hurl such epithets as ‘infantile’ and ‘elitist’ at the M.I.R. and condemn its illegal seizures of farms and factories. They urge consolidation, rather than rapid extension, of the Allende Government’s economic and social programs, negotiations on constitutional reform with the opposition Christian Democrats and a working relationship with private businesses. Dr. Allende has now taken this road in an effort to curb unemployment and inflation and to boost production.

Whatever unwillingness he had to confront big business within Chile’s borders, Salvador Allende never backed down from global capital in various speeches, including one made to the United Nations on September 4, 1972 speech to the United Nations. Guzmán correctly points out that this speech was one of the first to recognize the problems of “globalization” in language that sounds strikingly to Naomi Klein or Walden Bello:

We are faced by a direct confrontation between the large transnational corporations and the states. The corporations are interfering in the fundamental political, economic and military decisions of the states. The corporations are global organizations that do not depend on any state and whose activities are not controlled by, nor are they accountable to any parliament or any other institution representative of the collective interest. In short, all the world political structure is being undermined. The dealers don’t have a country. The place where they may be does not constitute any kind of link; the only thing they are interested in is where they make profits.

Fundamentally, there was a disjunction between Allende’s obvious commitment to ending this dependency on imperialist corporations and his willingness to empower the only class in society that had the power to do so. In a delicate balancing act between a radicalized proletariat and peasantry and the more privileged classes in Chile and their American benefactors, Allende hoped to make incremental changes that would tip the scales in favor of the poor. Unfortunately, the rich and important sectors of the middle class would not respect parliamentary rules and began to plot to overthrow Allende, just as has been the case in Venezuela. While Guzmán is quite penetrating when it comes to the machinations of the rich, he tends to hold back when it comes to contradictions within the left.

Apparently, there is much more willingness in Guzmán’s “The Battle for Chile” to examine the clash between the Popular Unity government and its base. The World Socialist Website, which tends to sectarianism frequently despite its generally astute political analysis, was quite generous in its review of “The Battle for Chile,” which it regarded as a “heartfelt testament to Pinochet’s victims.” It made clear that the ambivalence about and or hostility to “people’s power” within the upper circles of Allende’s government were shared by the director, whose remarks in a Q&A following a screening of the film in London, demonstrated an unwillingness to come to terms with Mao’s observation that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun:

Guzmán described the trilogy at a question and answer session after the screening as a tribute to the Popular Unity government period and Allende particularly. This was clearly the intention of The Coup, but because of the way the film was made, a more critical picture of the situation in Chile still emerges. It is clear, for example, that the workers were a huge and potent force. In the middle of July workers took the streets of the Vicuna McKenna district. In the ensuing stand-off the mayor of Santiago had to be called in to move the police two blocks away. Workers are repeatedly seen demanding arms to defend Allende, arms which Allende was denying them. An old member of the Communist Party is seen warning that if the workers lose it will be like Spain after the civil war.

The issue of arms crops up repeatedly. Allende, who refused to create a workers militia, dismissed his police from La Moneda before the bombardment began, leaving only 40 bodyguards. As the coup approached, the military stepped up weapons searches in order to gauge the strength of the workers. At the question session, Guzmán expressly disagreed that the refusal to arm the workers had been a mistake. It would have been impossible, he said, because the military would have known it was happening. In any case, it was already known that the military were preparing a coup. In other words, once it began the coup was inevitably going to be a success. Yet even in the last few days before the coup, the streets of Santiago were filled with mass demonstrations in defence of Allende.

Despite both coming to power through the ballot, there are significant differences between Allende and Hugo Chavéz. First of all, Chavéz was a military officer himself with broad connections to leftist officers, perhaps the most striking characteristic of Venezuelan politics where an Air Force general is described by Richard Gott in “Shadow of the Liberator” as having “Trotskyist” politics. By contrast, Air Force officers in the US tend to be followers of the Christian Right.

But more importantly, the primary ideological inspiration for Chavéz’s movement is revolutionary socialism rather than 1930s style popular frontism. According to Gott, a number of Chavéz’s primary influences were Marxists to the left of the CP. In declaring for a 21st century socialism, Chavéz has made repeated references to the failure of Soviet socialism in terms that reflect the influences of the Trotskyist movement. Of course, as is always the case with Chavéz, he makes up his own mind based on what he thinks is right. This includes his willingness to stand up to the bourgeois parties in Venezuela, unlike Allende who kept making concession after concession to the Christian Democrats who were plotting his overthrow. To show that he was deferential to their interests, he kept bringing military men into his cabinet and even put Pinochet in charge of public security not 6 months before Pinochet overthrew his government.

Guzmán reflects a tendency that was very strong on the Chilean left and that even included the radical guerrillas of the MIR. It found itself torn between support for Allende’s government and support for the “people’s power” in the street that could have been Chile’s salvation.

In reviewing one of the better leftwing critiques of the Popular Unity government (the aptly titled “Chile: The State and Revolution” by Ian Roxborough, Philip O’Brien and Jackie Roddick), I came across the words of ordinary Chilean workers from this period reflecting an acute awareness of the danger they faced. This interview with a “Socialist militant” from the Cordón San Joaquín appeared in Chile Hoy a month before the coup:

Chile Hoy: What do the majority of the comrades in the cordon think of the new cabinet? [one that included military officers]:

Socialist militant from Cordon San Joaquin: We have not discussed it yet. But certainly people are very confused. In fact, the demonstration today lacks a sense of combativity, there is no common purpose, and there are no clear slogans. One can see that the masses don’t look on the incorporation of military men into the cabinet with much sympathy. There is no clarity. The parties should tell the masses what their reasons are for choosing this road. Neither Calderon nor Figueroa (both leaders of the CUT, and ex members of the government, the first Socialist, the second Communist) filled this need in their speeches. And it would have been difficult for them to do it, in this climate of agitation. The president of Cordon Vicuna Mackenna, where the movement to take over factories after June 29th was strongest:

We saw this cabinet as a betrayal of the working class. It shows that the government is still vacillating and has no confidence in the working class. The generals in the cabinet are a guarantee for the capitalists, just as they were in October, a guarantee for Vilarin (leader of the striking lorry owners) and not for the working class. We’ve already been through this solution: More tyres and trucks for Vilarin . . . the same thing again. For this reason, we think that the situation is quite dangerous, because we think the army’s searches will continue and we believe that many of those now fighting will fall, including those of us who are at this moment struggling for People’s Power.

Youtube: the final speech of Salvador Allende

May 16, 2007

John Holloway’s complaint

Filed under: autonomism,Iran,Latin America — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

John Holloway

With the resurgence of a Latin American left expressed mainly by elected governments challenging the capitalist system to one degree or another, there has been a corresponding decline of “autonomist” currents such as the EZLN and the more ideologically disposed supporters and members of the piqueteros and recovered factories movement in Argentina. It is understandably hard to get worked up over Subcommandante Zero’s latest communiqué when Hugo Chavez is changing class relationships on the ground.

Standing in the same relationship to the autonomist currents that Regis Debray once had with the rural guerrilla groups of the 1960s, British professor John Holloway has been forced to take stock of the situation in an interview conducted by Marina Sitrin, an American leftist who writes about Argentine autonomism.

Holloway is the author of “How to Change the World Without Taking Power” that I reviewed here. It basically argues that “If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed.” It is good for workers to rebel in his view but not good to rule. Whenever I think about such arguments, I am reminded of how my mother’s Irish Setter loved to chase cars up our country road but would always return after a few hundred feet of barking wildly. I thought to myself at the time that the excitable hound wouldn’t know what to do with a car if she actually caught one. For Holloway, the working class is in the same situation as my mom’s Irish Setter.

Sitrin asks Holloway to respond to criticisms made by people who think it is good for workers to be in the driver’s seat:

Many academics, especially those writing in the English language, have been critically writing about the horizontal movements in Latin America. They claim that the movements have failed due to not understanding class and power (That they did/do not want to take it). Now these same people, James Petras or Tariq Ali for example, are writing of the victory of the left, ignoring in most cases what many people in the movements actually desire or are creating. I see this as one-sided, narrow, and historically inaccurate, taking us back to the frame of the 1960-90s. However, these are the writings that most people trying to find out about what is going on in Latin America read. Do you think this does damage to the movements?

I imagine that the “frame of the 1960-90s” is a reference to the Cuban revolution, before the EZLN had become trendy. Now that the Venezuelan revolution is inspiring a new generation of radicals, it is a little bit more difficult to get people down to Mexico for some encuentro that produces nothing but rhetoric. It also suggests the general decline of autonomist and anarchist currents over the past 6 years as the mass movement has had to wrestle with the enormous task of forcing Anglo-American imperialism out of Afghanistan and Iraq. In such a dead serious situation, Black Block antics don’t have much traction.

Holloway’s reply is characteristically coy:

Yes, generally I’m in favour of a broad concept of comradeship, that we should regard all those who say no to capitalism as comrades (at least as comrades of the No, even if not as comrades of the Yes), but sometimes it’s hard to maintain. I agree that there’s an extraordinary blindness to what’s happening, a sort of desperation to squeeze the struggles of today into frameworks of thought constructed in the youth of the commentators. It’s as if they are wearing blinkers that simply will not allow them to see. For them the victory of the left is Chávez and Evo and sometimes even Kirchner and Lula and they don’t see that these electoral successes are, at best, extremely contradictory elements in a very real surge of struggle in Latin America. I’m not sure that these writings have much effect on the movements themselves, but they do spread their blindness especially to readers outside Latin America. What we need of course is more books like your own “Horizontality” to let people hear what is actually happening and what people are doing and saying.

I can understand the frustration of Sitrin and Holloway. “Horizontality” has got to be a hard sell when the competition has such a better product line. When you get your hands on state power, there are all sorts of things that you can do that are impossible for a purist, autonomist movement.

Take Chiapas, for example, which represents for Holloway kind of the same thing that St. Petersburg represented to John Reed in 1917. It embodies his deepest beliefs in what it means to change the world without taking power. However, when it comes to the specifics of changing the world, it is Cuban doctors who have had more impact than the EZLN:

Cuban health workers arrive to help in impoverished southern Mexican state

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Cuban health workers are in southern Chiapas state to help officials cope with a with a sudden spate of infant deaths at a rural hospital, the governor said Monday.

Cuban Deputy Health Minister Gonzalo Estevez is among four Cuban doctors visiting the state to advise officials on possible improvement in the health care system, state officials said. In an interview with the Televisa network, Gov. Pablo Salazar said the doctors were discussing the possibility of bringing “epidemiological brigades” to Chiapas.

Cuba‘s socialist government has made heavy investment in health a point of pride, and has sent thousands of doctors and nurses on missions to impoverished or disaster-stricken areas in Africa and the Americas.

Cuba’s health system, while short on medicines, specializes in preventative and neonatal care.

Salazar said the medical assistance is part of a broader agreement under which Cuba has already sent agronomists and other experts to his state.

Cuba has made a point of offering aid to nations with both friendly and hostile governments. Relations between Mexico and Cuba have been tense over the past year.

When it comes to recovered factories, a kind of ideological dividing line for the autonomists, there is evidence once again that there is no substitute for state power when it comes to getting things done.

Venezuela’s government seized the assets of the country’s largest paper product plant Venepal yesterday, after bankruptcy was finally declared last December.

The troubled company stopped production in September, 2004 threatening to sell off the plant’s machinery to pay off creditors. Workers at the plant who had not been paid for three months, organized a national campaign to encourage the expropriation of the factory, which culminated in yesterday’s official announcement.

The nationalization of Venepal was accompanied by a US$6.7 million credit, necessary to restart production. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed the declaration to expropriate the factory after the National Assembly -with the support from opposition parties- declared Venepal to be of “public benefit and social interest” last Thursday – which is a legal prerequisite for expropriation.

I suppose that the autonomist current will not be persuaded by counter-indicators such as these. When you make a fetish over state power, or the lack thereof, you begin to become detached from the world of politics and enter the world of ethics. While there is little harm that can come out of autonomist politics, it seems unlikely that it will ever begin to impact social and economic relationships in a way that can demonstrate its superiority. In an odd way, the attraction to its supporters like Holloway is its very powerlessness.

I recently discovered that autonomism has sunk roots in Iran, where the working class movement has begun to assert itself after years and years of being on the defensive. Since the Iranian left has demonstrated extreme sectarianism over the years, it might not come as a surprise that the local autonomists reflect these bad habits as well.

In Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian’s “Iran on the Brink”, there’s a review of trade union developments in chapter six that demonstrates the liabilities of a kind of autonomist politics, namely the council communism associated with Paul Mattick and Anton Pannekoek. In the most recent resurgence of shoras, or workers councils, the autonomists have tended to do everything they can to keep them from uniting nation-wide and from mounting a general political challenge to the Islamic Republic. They have also argued against trade union organizing, believing that such institutions are as tainted as the state–no matter who runs them.

The Iranian council communists are organized in Komiteye Hamahangi (“The Co-ordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organisation in Iran”) and are led by Mohsen Hakimi, a Tehran intellectual. Malm and Esmailian write:

Not very strangely, the Komiteye Hamahangi activists – many of whom had experienced the revolution first-hand and then stagnated through the decades of political paralysis – have made a fetish of the shora institution which, in the hands of Hakimi, has been petrifi ed into a doctrine of council communism. Falling back on this early twentieth-century strand of western socialism, associated with the names of Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick, Hakimi has reached the conclusion that the council is the only organisation the workers need. No mediation, transitional steps or organisational apparatus should stand between the workers and their goals. In the programmes of the committee, it is explained thus: “We – workers – establish our own councils. With the power of our councils, any interference by any employer in the fate of production is prevented. Our way is to have our councils take production into our own hands.”

To the activists of Komiteye Hamahangi, political parties are anathema. But more crucially, in the light of later events in Iran: trade unions are equally anathema. In council communism, they are considered not only bureaucratic obstacles wasting the energy of shop-floor struggle, but “capitalist organisations” complicit in the trading of labour as a commodity. According to the texts of Komiteye Hamahangi, the trade union is by defi nition a “bargaining unit”, a “mediator between workers and capitalism”, just another machine making “profits” on status quo. The only form of organisation permissible is an “anti-capitalist” one, whose activities will be restricted to propaganda, agitation and “support for strikes, workers’ control initiatives and the like”. Hence Komiteye Hamahangi has declared it of paramount importance to “reveal the dominant resolutions and strategies of ‘syndicalism’ [that is, trade unionism], ‘sectarism’ [sic], ‘social democracy’, ‘liberalism’ or in a word ‘reformism’ as a fundamental obstruction in the way of the working class struggle.”

In 2005, Hakimi wrote articles that sound like the Persian version of John Holloway’s purple prose. He referred to “life without the wage” as a “glimmer of light at the end of a suffocating tunnel–let us come together and burst that tunnel open.”

Fortunately, there are alternatives to Komiteye Hamahangi. There are Marxist activists in the labor movement who have drawn conclusions similar to comrades on Marxmail and elsewhere in the world where “vanguard” conceptions are being questions. After doing some reading and writing on Venezuela lately, they strike me as the counterparts of Causa R.

Known as Komiteye Peygiri (“Follow-up Committee for the Establishment of Free Workers’ Organisations in Iran”), it was started by veterans of the Iranian left that had broken with illusions in Islamic radicalism and had decided to focus on organizing the working class, something that was sadly absent in the past.

Taking the point of view that there was no contradiction between the shoras and the trade union movement, they put forward the following demand:

Holding general assemblies during working hours and in the workplace should be recognised. We demand direct participation and intervention of workers’ representatives in tripartite meetings and in all matters relating to workers’ future. Such representatives should be elected in general assemblies through workers’ direct vote.

In a statement that reflected both a sober assessment of conditions in Iran as well as the need to press forward, they probably spoke for Marxists everywhere:

There is no revolutionary situation in Iran. As Lenin said, two conditions must be met for such a situation to arise: oppressors must be incapable of oppressing any longer, and the oppressed must refuse to be oppressed any more, and neither of these are present in Iran. It’s just sheer voluntarism on their [Hamahangi’s] part. What we can do is start from where we are, and gradually make the Islamic Republic accept our right to form trade unions.

March 10, 2007

Blessed by Fire

Filed under: antiwar,Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

Although it won “Best Film” at the 2005 Havana Film Festival, I was a bit wary of “Blessed by Fire” (Illuminados por el Fuego). Billed as an antiwar film based on the novel/memoir of Edgardo Esteban, a veteran of the Malvinas war in 1982, I wondered if it would portray this ill-fated attempt of the Argentineans to wrest control of their territory as a reactionary adventure on the part of the military government designed to deflect attention from the nation’s economic woes. Although this was certainly part of the motivation, history would record that this has been a burning issue for Argentina going back more than 100 years, whatever the character of the government in power.

The character based on the author is named Edgardo Leguizamón (Gastón Pauls), an 18 year draftee–like Esteban himself–who was sent off to fight in the Malvinas. The film begins with him being summoned to the hospital by the wife of Alberto Vargas (Pablo Ribba) a fellow soldier who has just attempted suicide with a mixture of pills, cocaine and booze. In a series of flashbacks to 1982, we find out about the huge psychic toll the fighting took on the foot soldier. Esteban eventually made a career as a journalist, but Vargas went back to factory work after the war ended. Like most Argentine workers, this was like a continuation of battlefield stress. Instead of dodging British bullets, he dodged unemployment–often unsuccessfully.

The film concentrates on the harsh living conditions, the abuse from superiors and the bloody consequences of facing a much better equipped and trained enemy such men were forced to endure. Although it is about a war, there is not much fighting that goes on except for the final rout just before the Argentines surrender.

In the opening scene, we see the grunts ascending from foxholes and bunkers near a Malvinas beach. Shivering and miserable, they stand at attention while a Lieutenant harangues them about their inadequacies as soldiers and about their invincibility in the coming battle. His remarks fully convey the cognitive dissonance that characterized this misadventure from the beginning. Argentina was hardly equipped to build a national economy, let alone take on the second most powerful imperialist nation in the world. The country’s ruler General Leopoldo Galtieri made the fatal mistake in assuming that the US would back him against Great Britain.

It did not matter in the long run how many trade unionists were killed and tortured by Argentina’s death squads, the American imperialists would never break ranks with their British allies. In 1982, Reagan and Thatcher were in power and clearly saw their common class interests in facing down Soviet communism and any impudent 3rd world power that stood in their way. The Argentine generals made the mistake in thinking that they belonged to the winner’s club when Washington and London probably referred to them as “dagoes” behind closed doors.

“Blessed by Fire” is directed by Tristán Bauer, a 48 year old from Mar de Plata. He has made documentaries about Eva Peron, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Peron is obviously a symbol of Argentine nationalism, while the two writers are usually associated with a longing for a European identity. This year Bauer announced his attention to make a film about Che Guevara.

“Blessed by Fire” opens at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York and I encourage you to go see it. Although it is not without flaws (mostly having to do with the unwise decision to use a handheld camera, a kind of acid test for independent film-makers nowadays), it is essential viewing for anybody trying to understand the recent history of Argentina and the profound changes taking place on the continent.

Ultimately, Edgardo Esteban’s main complaint was not that a war was fought, but how it was fought. Now nearly 25 years after the Malvinas war, other veterans are making their voice heard.

The Observer (England), January 21, 2007

As the train pulls into the central station of Buenos Aires, Jose is still walking down the aisle hawking a clutch of goods. An olive-green jacket, a patch with an Argentinian flag on his right arm, and a silhouette of the Malvinas Islands signal he is one of the many veterans of the Falklands war supplementing their meagre pensions. What he sells is patriotism – small calendars and stickers bearing the slogan: ‘The Malvinas were, are and always will be Argentinian.’

But he tells a story of betrayal, of himself and 15,000 other veterans of the 1982 war with Britain. In a voice made automatic by repetition, he says: ‘A little help please, I am a veteran of the Malvinas, I have been repeatedly denied jobs simply for being a veteran, my pension is not always enough, I have been forgotten by my country for a long time.’ He has been saying it for 25 years. It is a story repeated by most veterans.

Things have improved, but very late. The most important change came in 1991, when some veterans finally began to receive pensions. The next milestone was the election in 2003 of Nestor Kirchner. He became President on the back of promises on human rights, and increased the pension so the veterans felt able to pull down the green tents they had pitched in front of the government building on the Plaza de Mayo, protesting at lack of compensation and healthcare on the same spot where thousands congregated in April 1982 to cheer the capture of the Malvinas.

But the difficulty of winning a pension is, veterans argue, evidence of neglect which goes back to the war itself. General Leopoldo Galtieri, ‘in his quest to stay in power, had no qualms in sending brave 18-year-old conscripts, with no military training whatever, into a war’, says Norberto Santos, one of those 18-year-olds and now a member of the Centre for Ex-Combatants Islas Malvinas (CECIM). The troops had to endure shortages of ammunition, food, and clothing and suffered from cold, abuse and humiliation by their superiors.

‘Some of us were treated better by the British while in custody in the troop ship Canberra than by the Argentinian forces,’ says Sergio Isaia, another veteran held prisoner. For Santos the war ended when a bomb blew off his left arm. A comrade, thinking he was dying, shot him to end his suffering. Instead, he prolonged it. The neglect continued despite Margaret Thatcher’s victory, the fall of Galtieri and the re-establishment of democracy. One example was the pensions, but the state paid little attention to veterans’ health or post-traumatic stress.

Maria Laura Tapparelli, the widow of Jorge Martire, agrees her husband’s response was to join Argentinian society in forgetting. After 60 days fighting on the Falklands, he returned to La Plata in Buenos Aires province. He found a wife, had three children and studied architecture. ‘He barely spoke about the Malvinas,’ she says. In October 1992, on the way to sit his last exam, he disappeared. He was found later wandering around the city’s main square. He had lost his memory as well as his way. He was hospitalised with symptoms of ‘atypical psychosis’ – what some veterans call the ‘Malvinas syndrome’. One day Jorge was found by the doctors hidden underneath his bed, sheltering from ‘an English bombing’. Early in 1993 he was released. He bought a gun, went to a bar in the city and blew his head off.

Martire – ‘martyr’ in Italian- was far from alone. Suicides are commonplace among veterans, the number – 460, according to CECIM – almost as high as 650 deaths in combat.

Jose says he was unable to find ordinary work because he was a veteran and Santos believes his experiences bear out such claims. He tried to find a job at the municipality of La Plata, his home town, but when he said he was a war veteran he was rejected. A few months later he told another interviewer he had lost his arm in a motorbike accident. He got the job.

Veterans believe that discrimination explains other unusual experiences. Santos married and had three children, but after a few years the couple divorced. His ex-wife told the judge that he was a Falklands veteran and Santos was denied the right even to see his children. ‘I still wander around the courthouse asking what my punishment is for having been on the Malvinas, asking how many years will pass before someone can tell me if I committed a crime,’ he says.

Stories like Santos‘s and the suicide of a friend, as well as his own experience of war, drove Edgardo Esteban to write an autobiography which was turned into an award-winning film, Blessed by Fire. Edgardo, too, was 18 when he was sent to fight. ‘The post-traumatic stress was there, but I managed to send it and my ghosts away and to exorcise myself’.

‘The “blessed by fire” are the madmen, the disturbed, the insane, all those veterans that have been forgotten during this past years,’ he says.

In Argentina the film publicised the realities of the veterans’ lives. ‘The movie gave a voice to the voiceless and the silenced,’ he says. ‘After the war, the military asked us not to say a thing. But why not talk about the Malvinas? ‘

When it was shown in London and Manchester, Esteban remembers some British Falklands veterans crying and giving welcoming applause. ‘There was a very nice dialogue with the British then,’ he says. Some of the British veterans he has seen reflected the same realities from a different side. ‘The British now have to avoid any celebration about the war; even with a victory, wars are not to be cheered.’

But the film upset some in the Argentinian armed forces. ‘The armed forces wanted Rambo-style images, but there are no Rambos in a war, just human beings made of flesh and bones.’

Others look for therapy among people. Juan Cantini, a member of the Union of Veterans of the Islas Malvinas, says: ‘Some of my comrades-in-arms have been wandering around trains for ages, as they started to do before they received their pensions, for an economic need. Some today are still walking up and down the trains and buses as a form of therapy, just to clear their minds for a while and to be surrounded by other people – who, unfortunately, still ignore them.’

But for some it may be more important than even therapy. At Retiro station, Jose waits for the next train back to the suburbs. He sold just a few calendars and stickers on the way out and will probably sell a few more on the way back.

‘The trauma is still with me. I have to keep going, I do not want to succumb to other temptations, like suicide.’

February 3, 2007

NACLA, Michael Coppedge and “political risk” in Venezuela

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

For the first time in many months, I took a look at the latest issue of NACLA–a journal on Latin American politics that was launched by 60s radicals but today is anything but. Despite the presence of contributions by some decent people, like William Robinson who used to write for the radical American newsweekly the Guardian, it contains an article that can best be described as disinformation.

Michael Coppedge advises on “political risk” in Venezuela

Titled “In Defense of Polyarchy,” and written by Notre Dame Professor Michael Coppedge, it states:

I recognize that Hugo Chávez, or his candidates or proposals, have won at the polls consistently and repeatedly since 1998 (although if the government had not delayed the recall referendum by more than a year, he would have been voted out in 2003). But polyarchy requires more than winning elections, even though some in the U.S. government sometimes forget this when it suits their purposes. Polyarchy also requires holding fair elections, and there have already been some abuses of this in Venezuela: physical intimidation of opposition voters at the polls; preferential registration of likely Chávez voters, including some noncitizens; and possible small-scale electronic fraud. And there are good reasons to believe that future elections will not be fair, if the government needs them not to be fair. There has been proof that voting machines can be used to invalidate the secret ballot if the government wants to do that. There is now an unreasonably partisan electoral council that has repeatedly shown that it does not make fair decisions, and the courts are stacked in a systematic way so that it’s impossible to turn to them to appeal these decisions of the electoral council. For all these reasons, there are questions about whether future elections will be fair.

As is so often the case with these sorts of scholarly pieces, it is difficult to figure out where the author is coming from ideologically. A check of Professor Coppedge’s CV at the Notre Dame website provides some background.

In 2005, Coppedge was a “Member of expert group advising academics contracted by USAID to do a quantitative assessment of its Democracy Promotion activities”. Great, just what NACLA needs–contributors who consulted with USAID on “democracy promotion”. Anybody who has followed Venezuelan politics over the past 5 years knows that the USAID has funded and advised anti-Chavez groups. What audacity. Coppedge writes about the threat that Chavez poses to Venezuelan democracy when he is on the payroll of an outfit that has promoted coup attempts repeatedly.

In 2004, Coppedge advised Gerson-Lehrman Group’s Policy & Economics Council on political risk in Venezuela. Gerson-Lehrman Group (GLG) is in the business of providing risk assessment to hedge funds and other institutions, just the kind of background that prepares one for writing for a radical (well, erstwhile radical) journal. The Lehrman in Gerson-Lehrman is Lew Lehrman, the New York state billionaire who has funded rightwing causes for the past 20 years or so.

Lew Lehrman’s brother is on the board of this outfit. On the board of director’s page, we discover that “Thomas Lehrman is Director of the Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism in the U.S. Department of State. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and as a professional staff member on the President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

For his part, Mark Gerson is an old hand at rightwing causes. When his alma mater Williams College interviewed the “risk assessment” entrepreneur, he revealed the conversion that was no doubt helpful in making connections in all the right places eventually:

The weekly meetings of the James A. Garfield Republican Club were immensely helpful in our intellectual developments. It was like Alcove 2 in City College when many of the neoconservatives attended there in the 1940s. Everyone was well-informed and intellectually serious; when you came to a meeting of the Republican Club, you were expected to have read The New Republic, Commentary, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The American Spectator and anything else of note at the time.

Aporrea.org, a pro-Chavez website, reported on GLG’s activities in Venezuela:

Este es el caso de la empresa consultora de Otto Reich, cuyos informes sobre Venezuela son utilizados por su discípulo en el Departamento de Estado, Roger Noriega, para definir la política exterior hacia Venezuela, y de la firma “Gerson Lehrman Group” (GLG), que comenzó a elaborar recientemente un informe sobre el futuro de Venezuela, su situación política y las posibles repercusiones que ésta podría tener sobre el mercado petrolero para un “cliente” de fondos de inversiones.

Roughly translated, this states that GLG was preparing a report on the future of Venezuela, with an eye towards any repercussions that an excess of democracy might have on the world petroleum market. One wonders if Professor Coppedge provided some input to this report, using his political science training to assign a quantitative risk to such an eventuality. I hope that GLG paid him well for his professional services. In today’s day and age, the kind of imperialist-minded rats that pop up in John Le Carre’s fiction demand top dollar and Professor Coppedge deserves every drop of blood money that comes his way.

October 3, 2006

Politicians, consultants and the class struggle

Filed under: Film,Latin America,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

In 1993, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus came out with “The War Room,” a cinema vérité behind-the-scenes examination of how James Carville and George Stephanopolous helped Bill Clinton get elected president. Last year Rachel Boynton’s “Our Brand is Crisis” came out as a virtual sequel. Using the same basic technique as Pennebaker-Hegedus, Boynton followed around Carville consultants as they helped to elect Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (“Goni”) president of Bolivia in 2005. Seeing the two films in tandem, as I did last night, highlights the flaws in the Pennebaker-Hegedus “fly on the wall” approach as well as demonstrating the bankruptcy of horse race style politicking, especially when applied to a predominantly poor and class conscious society like Bolivia’s.


James Carville

It is extremely difficult to figure out what point “The War Room” is trying to make. Although the film makers are obviously sympathetic to Clinton and his two consultants, they studiously avoid any temptation to allow them to speak directly to the camera about what motivates them. As someone who has heard James Carville speak eloquently (but without much depth) about the problems of American society on the Don Imus show, this dimension is utterly lacking in the film. Instead it is entirely taken up with the messy technical details of how to cultivate Clinton’s image in such a way as to boost his poll numbers, exploit weaknesses in George Bush ’41’s campaign, etc. It is the stuff of Sunday morning television talk shows during an election year and something I have about as much interest in as buying jewelry on the Home Shopping Network.

At the conclusion of the film, after Clinton has been declared winner, Carville tells his assembled troops how they have made history by taking the election process and returning it to the people, holding back a sob in the process. I was struck by how much this reminded me of the maudlin displays in the locker-rooms of the victorious football or baseball team that has won a championship. I almost expected somebody to pour champagne on Carville’s head.

That being said, “The War Room” offers the same kind of entertainment value as the couple’s documentary on Al Franken that I reviewed recently as well as Pennebaker’s premiere film on Bob Dylan, “Don’t Look Back”. Sensing the sort of low-level bad taste in the mouth feeling left by their work, Dylan disavowed the entire project.

James Carville is on camera throughout the film. With his reptilian smile, Machiavellian amorality, and down home Louisiana way of expressing things, he comes across as a wonkish rogue not much different from the man he was trying to elect. Stephanopolous, a Columbia University graduate who was 31 at the time, is clearly smitten with Clinton. His college president manner and his unctuous deference to Clinton is singularly off-putting. One supposes that Pennebaker and Hegedus found him both charming and repellent, just like Bob Dylan.

I suppose that the greatest merit of “The War Room” is that it is a good introduction to “Our Brand is Crisis,” a superior film in every way. Unlike Pennebaker-Hegedus, Rachel Boynton has a definite point of view, although it is expressed primarily by the scenes included throughout the film. The first image one sees is a bullet-riddled corpse on the streets of La Paz, a victim of police violence. Toward the end of the film, on the very same streets, we see a protestor shouting, “Gringo Asshole, Step Down!” (directed at President Goni) and obviously a sentiment she agrees with.



At key scenes in the film, Boynton asks Jeremy Rosner, the key Carville consultant assigned to work with Goni, why he failed. Since he is far too arrogant (like the candidate he worked for) to examine himself critically, it is left up to candidate Evo Morales and ordinary Bolivians to answer this for him. Such is the utter hubris of the Carville consultants that they never seem to understand that the camera is revealing them to be complete assholes.

Tal Silberstein, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, is one such consultant. In a meeting with Goni and his advisers, he tells them that the Bolivian press must be “fed spinach”, which is good for them, rather than milk shakes and hamburgers, which is not. Assuming that Silberstein was being paid $500 per hour for his services, one can only conclude that American imperialism was ever so ingenious in figuring out ways to screw its neighbors to the South. Later on, he advises the Goni campaign to “go negative” against their main rival Manfred Reyes Villa, which means running ads that he lives in an expensive house and has ties to the military. Although this seems to have worked for Goni, the Carville consultants failed to pay attention to what Goni was supposed to stand for. Within a few months, demonstrators were marching on the capitol demanding his ouster.

Jeremy Rosner is the perfect symbol of liberal bad faith. While acknowledging in “politically correct” fashion that the Bolivians have been robbed of their national sovereignty and their minerals going back 500 years, he cannot conceive of the possibility that Goni intends to keep that system going. Most of his annoyance is directed against Evo Morales, who he accuses of having all sorts of “wild” ideas about nationalization. That being stated, he also understands that Goni’s “capitalization” program (a term for privatization) has caused the greatest crisis in the country in over 50 years. That essentially is the conundrum of bourgeois politics in Bolivia. It cannot help but admit that the country is in dire straits, but refuses to consider solutions that fall outside of its orthodoxy.

Goni is a singularly repellent figure. With his European features and his English pronunciation of Spanish (he grew up in the United States), one can understand why people marched in the streets and set up roadblocks to bring his government down. Not only were they getting stabbed in the back by multinational corporations, the man doing the sticking didn’t even look or sound Bolivian. In one memorable scene, he meets with female Bolivian journalists who share his mistrust and fear of the poor. One confesses that the first protest “terrified” her.

When Goni is asked by a Bolivian reporter if the spectacle of poor people marching in the streets moves him, he answers that he will not behave like the mother who only takes notice of a child when it throws a tantrum. That exchange encapsulates the class divide that brought Bolivia to the brink of revolution.

As an added bonus, Boynton’s film is a good introduction to recent Bolivian politics, particularly the importance of using the profits of natural gas sales to fund basic human needs. Goni and then the vice president who succeeded him were overthrown because they proposed that natural gas be exported out of Bolivia through Chilean pipelines, a step that was anathema to the country’s masses. Chile was historically seen as Bolivia’s oppressor, for the simple fact of denying it an outlet to the sea as the result of a 19th century war. The Bolivian people are revealed in this film as determined to nationalize this precious commodity and to exploit it for the common good. God have pity on any politician, Bolivian, Brazilian or American, who gets in their way.

September 20, 2006

Hugo Chavez speech to the United Nations

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Text of Speech to United Nations on 9/20/2006

Video of Speech to United Nations on 9/20/2006

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