Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 21, 2020

The Life of a Worker

Filed under: pakistan,workers — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

In 2017, I reviewed a documentary titled “Machines” made by Rahul Jain that took you inside an Indian textile mill, showing workers making the fabrics that end up in markets everywhere. Not only does the work leave the men barely capable of enjoying anything after work except smoking a cigarette and listening to a radio; the starvation wages would not allow anything much more than that. The film makes the term wage slavery hit home. In my review, I stated:

Dark and satanic are words that immediately come to mind when “Machines” begins. For the first 15 minutes of the film, you see nothing but men operating machinery. The plant looks fairly ancient with poor lighting and no air conditioning. Except for the modern machines, they are housed in a building not that different from late 18th century England at the dawn of the industrial revolution that Engels described in “The Conditions of the Working Class in England”: “The atmosphere of the factories is, as a rule, at once damp and warm, usually warmer than is necessary, and, when the ventilation is not very good, impure, heavy, deficient in oxygen, filled with dust and the smell of the machine oil, which almost everywhere smears the floor, sinks into it, and becomes rancid.”

You can now see “Machines” on YouTube for $2.99. It will help you understand why India remains a hotbed of revolutionary zeal, even as Modi tries to tamp it down through Islamophobic nationalism.

Incredibly, the workers in “Machines” have it a lot better than the textile workers in Multan, Pakistan. Two days ago, I received an invitation to spread the word about a documentary made by the comrades in the Internationalist Marxist Tendency (IMT), where they have developed a working-class base. While I am averse to vulgar Marxism, I have always believed that it is poverty and super-exploitation that will make workers revolutionary-minded.

Titled “The Life of a Worker”, the 19-minute film consists of an interview with a power loom operator in Multan who describes his humble beginnings, his marriage and family living in poverty, the lethal conditions inside his factory where the textile fibers make asthma an epidemic, and his hopes for a different way of life.

The film is in Urdu but you can select English subtitles as an option. Have a little patience since the actual documentary begins about 2 and ½ minutes into “The Life of a Worker”. While you might not be surprised by the brutal conditions faced by a textile worker in Pakistan today, it is entirely possible that the good days of living in the advanced capitalist countries might be ending soon. An article in today’s NY Times titled “Coronavirus and Poverty: A Mother Skips Meals So Her Children Can Eat” dramatizes the depths to which American workers are falling:

Ms. Mossbarger hardly mentioned it, but she was starving. “I honestly wasn’t going to eat, but Jordan was like, ‘You got to eat something,’” she said.

The next morning, she again skipped breakfast and was sipping a Monster Energy drink. She was tired and her head hurt.

“I feel it,” she said.

“The Life of a Worker” ends with the strains of “The International”. We used to sing it at conventions of the Socialist Workers Party years ago, but it was mainly an exercise in nostalgia. Today, it is the capitalist system that is rapidly turning into a relic of the past, the sooner the better.

We toilers from all fields united
Join hand in hand with all who work;
The earth belongs to us, the workers,
No room here for the shirk.
How many on our flesh have fattened!
But if the norsome birds of prey
Shall vanish from the sky some morning
The blessed sunlight then will stay.

January 31, 2012

Syed Ibne Hasan 1954 – 2012

Filed under: obituary,pakistan — louisproyect @ 8:52 pm

Syed Ibne Hasan: In Memoriam

Ibne Hasan
1954 – 2012

Syed  Ibne Hasan was a true inspiration in the continuing struggle for a better world. Hasan was an Associate Professor at Government Postgraduate Islamia College  in Gujranwala, Pakistan as well as an integral member of the Marxists Internet Archive Collective, building and directing a number of non-English Archives as well many English-language sections.

With the assistance of Imtiaz Hussain, Ibne Hasan published the first-ever Urdu translation of Marx’s Capital in 2006. Unlike any other previous translation of Marx in any language, this translation was first published free to the public domain in electronic form on the Internet. The same year, I was fortunate to work closely with Hasan in creating the Bhagat Singh Internet Archive for MIA.When I informed him that an online source was unwilling to provide me with permission to include Singh’s seminal work “Why I am an Atheist” in our fledgling archive, Hasan arranged for a new,original translation of the work from the original Gurmukhi text to Urdu, the latter of which was then translated to English by Hasan himself. With his indispensable help, we ultimately created a new edition of this important work which we subsequently shared on the Internet, copyright free for all to reproduce and share. Hasan also distributed books, CDs, and DVDs to students and workers throughout South Asia. In 2008, the administrators of MIA honored Hasan with a special award.

Hasan was an expert on the music of South Asia. We shared an appreciation for the Golden Age of Bollywood and provided me with hundreds of songs that he painstakingly transferred from his collection of rare 78 RPM records. He would often translate names or lyrics from Hindi movie songs at my request, sharing his perspective and interpretations on the words and melodies.

Farewell, dear friend. Though the world would benefit from many, many men like you, there will never be another Syed Ibne Hasan. Μάιος η μνήμη του είναι αιώνιος.

– Mike Bessler, 27 January 2012

Below are some articles and comments by Ibne Hasan that were posted on our old website. Despite the fact that he wrote perfect English, he always asked me to proofread his work for errors since the language was not his mother tongue. In the passages below, I have made only a handful of very minor changes.

An open letter from Pakistan   18 October 2005

Written in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated parts of northern Pakistan in late 2005, I was one of a handful of original recipients of this “open letter” from Hasan. He later permitted me to share it on the Internet through my blog.

I went to ‘Baagh’, a city 60 miles from Muzaffar Abad to visit a colleague who lost 130 members of his family. The city is reduced to rubble. A pungent smell of human corpses is felt all around. The people say that at least 50 thousand people have died in one city alone. The total number must be well above 200, 000. Thousands of trucks with relief goods are arriving here from all over Pakistan. In fact in every street and on every road common people are collecting these items and then bringing them to the quake hit areas by themselves. No one believes the government. No common man is contributing to the “President’s Relief Fund”. In spite of this huge effort on the part of the public, relief has not reached far-flung areas. Everywhere there are looters who stop the trucks and take away everything. I observed that all those who have survived are haunted by death; many have died; many are dying every moment. They cannot weep at any death that occurs for tears have dried in their eyes. Many have lost their senses. I met an educated man who has lost many relatives. He would go to the place where dead bodies are kept and lie down among decaying corpses. His friends had to drag him back every time. He recites this poem again and again:

Let me move to a place where I have no friend, no, nor any companion
No one who is kind; no one who says sympatric words to me.
Let me make a house which has no walls,
No neighbour, no one who speaks my language.
And if I fall ill, there is no one to comfort me in distress,
And if I die, there is no one to shed tears over my dead body!

At first I could not understand this cynical attitude and extreme depression. Soon I realised that all feel humiliated. A bureaucratic system of distributing relief goods has been evolved to reduce the people to a kind of beggary. One has to be either a looter or a beggar in order to get food or clothing. Nobody from the government or army reached them on the first two days. They were busy in “Margala Towers”, one of the most expensive residential areas in the capital. It is the only building that collapsed in Islamabad because substandard material had been used in the construction of it. Thanks to common people who are trying to reach everyone.

Many will squeeze money and prosperity out of it. The bus owners charge as much fares as they will. The truck fares have risen many times. When shopkeepers observe that you are purchasing clothes or blankets for the quake victims, they rob you. And our generals and bureaucrats and ministers etc, they will be earning millions. Only a tiny part of the aid that is being received from the international community will go to the people. Our Lions will receive the Lion’s share. Only yesterday a brigadier was caught red-handed selling 4 relief trucks. The government is quick to deny it. What a pity! What shame! These traders of religion; the sellers of human shrouds! Deaths of thousands of human beings will bring them billions of money.

This is the tragedy of Pakistan, or perhaps of all under-developed countries. This is, as Marx has commented somewhere, like France of Balzac’s novels, or perhaps worse than that. We are carrying the stinking carcass of feudal ages with all its decadence, moral decay, self-indulgence, corruption, depravity on our shoulders; added to it is all the greed, an intense, inordinate longing for wealth; a covetous desire for money that always comes with the bourgeois society.

This is Pakistan with its culture and civilization which is the fittest place for dictators to rule.

– I.H.

May 3, 2011

Code name Geronimo

Filed under: Jihadists,pakistan,war — louisproyect @ 1:50 pm

The code name for Bin Laden was “Geronimo.” The president and his advisers watched Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, on a video screen, narrating from his agency’s headquarters across the Potomac River what was happening in faraway Pakistan.

“They’ve reached the target,” he said.

Minutes passed.

“We have a visual on Geronimo,” he said.

A few minutes later: “Geronimo EKIA.”

Enemy Killed In Action. There was silence in the Situation Room.

Finally, the president spoke up.

“We got him.”

–NY Times, May 2, 2011

* * * *


The Big Question: Who was Geronimo, and why is there controversy over his remains?

By Guy Adams
Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Why are we asking this now?

The US government has been dragged into a bizarre legal battle between descendants of the Apache leader Geronimo and a secret society of Yale students called Skull and Bones, whose members allegedly raided his grave during the First World War. Yesterday, the Justice Department asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed in February, on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death, seeking to recover the legendary warrior’s remains and re-bury them near to his birthplace in the Gila Wilderness of southern New Mexico.

The legal action, by 20 descendants of Geronimo, claims a group of Skull and Bones members, including George W Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, took his skull from Fort Sill in Oklahoma in 1918. The artefact has allegedly been stored in a glass case at the organisation’s clubhouse in New Haven, Connecticut ever since. The Justice Department became involved because Barack Obama and his defence secretary Robert Gates are named alongside the Skull and Bones society as co-defendants, due to the fact that Geronimo was initially buried on public land.

So who was Geronimo?

For much of his lifetime, Geronimo was considered the greatest terrorist in America. These days, he’s feted as a fearless guerrilla fighter, whose famously brave troops were the last American Indian force to hold out against the United States.

Born Goytholy, meaning “the one who yawns,” he took up arms when his wife, children and mother were massacred by Mexicans in 1851. His nickname stems from daring retaliatory raids, when he led men on cavalry charges, often into a hail of bullets. Legend has it that victims would scream a plea to St Jerome (hence “Jeronimo!”) as they died.

Geronimo evaded capture for more than three decades. Though wounded countless times, he was never defeated, and his men are perhaps the most effective light cavalry force in military history. They numbered no more than a couple of hundred at any one time, but are said to have killed more than 5,000 enemies.

Why did he fight?

Geronimo was a member of the Chiricahua Apache tribe whose homelands in the deserts of New Mexico were annexed first by Mexico and later by the United States during its expansion into the south-west during the 19th century. His insurgency was part of a wider rebellion by Native Indians against their treatment by white settlers, who carried out what in modern terms might be called ethnic cleansing: removing tribes from ancestral territories and (in some cases) placing a bounty on their scalps. Geronimo’s success was down to old-fashioned derring-do, and sheer good luck. Because of repeated close shaves with mortality, many followers believed he was resistant to bullets. His men were adept at using their opponents’ technology – including rifles and pistols – against them.

How was he captured?

After more than 30 years the US General Nelson Miles tracked Geronimo to Arizona. The rebels were exhausted after decades on the run, and their number had dwindled to just 36 men, many of whom (including their leader) had taken to heavy drinking. In the autumn of 1886, Geronimo negotiated a tactical surrender, agreeing to lay down his arms on condition that his followers would be allowed to disband and return home to their families. But the US reneged on its promises, and promptly took Geronimo and his troops into custody. They spent seven years in prison in Alabama before being transferred to Fort Sill, where they lived out the rest of their days in a form of open prison.

What became of him?

Ironically, Geronimo’s fame only grew during his year in captivity. He became a local celebrity, charging visitors to Fort Sill to have their photo taken with him, and keeping a stock of autographed cards and other souvenirs to sell to tourists. In old age, he was constantly interviewed (for a small fee) by the US press, and took part in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Circus, where performers recreated his most daring battles. He was a star attraction at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, and had a prominent place in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905.

Having embraced capitalism, Geronimo also took up the white man’s religion, converting to Christianity saying he believed it to be “better than the religion of my forefathers.” He joined the Dutch Reformed Church in 1903, but was expelled four years later, apparently for gambling. He died in 1909, at the age of 79.

What happened to his remains?

Three members of the Skull and Bones society, including Prescott Bush, were stationed at an artillery school at Fort Sill during the First World War. In a bizarre prank, they are rumoured to have dug up his grave, and taken his skull and femurs back to their alma mater.

Why does this matter?

Although unproven, the alleged desecration of Geronimo’s grave carries significant political baggage. Like Chief Sitting Bull, who defeated General Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn, Native Americans view him as a symbol of their people’s righteous rebellion against white colonialists. Geronimo is also firmly embedded in the US psyche as a symbol of bonkers bravado. Paratroopers shout his name after leaping from aeroplanes, apparently as part of a tradition that began in 1940, when they prepared for their first mass jump by watching the film “Geronimo.” In a scene based on one of its subject’s many narrow escapes – and mimicked by generations of schoolchildren – the movie’s hero yells his own name as he leaps from a cliff into a river to escape capture by approaching soldiers.

What is the Skull and Bones?

Adding to the intrigue is long-standing public fascination with the Skull and Bones society, an organisation of privileged Yale Students whose alumni include both Presidents Bush and John Kerry. The club, founded at the Ivy League school in 1832, selects 15 new members each year. They are sworn in at the “Tomb,” a windowless campus clubhouse which is purported to hold the skulls of a range of famous figures, including Che Guevara. During the initiation ceremony, recruits are apparently required to kiss the skull of Geronimo, which is said to be held in a glass case near the door, and take a solemn oath to support fellow members.

Since the society is secret – it has never clarified the exact contents of the “Tomb” – some regard it as vaguely sinister. Others say it is a harmless networking organisation. In this respect, it is perhaps best described as an upmarket version of the Freemasons.

What happens next?

The lawsuit by Geronimo’s descendants was filed in a federal district court in Washington DC, and seeks: “to free Geronimo, his remains, funerary objects and spirit from 100 years of imprisonment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Yale University campus at New Haven, Connecticut and wherever else they may be found.”

Presuming the case isn’t immediately thrown out – and the political ramifications of doing so would be enormous – the court’s immediate next step must be to determine if the Skull and Bones society really does own Geronimo’s disputed skull.

Does the Skull and Bones society really have Geronimo’s skull?


*The Skull and Bones has repeatedly refused to discuss the skull, still less surrender it for DNA testing

*A letter written in 1918 by a society member says it gained possession of it

*A history of the society written in 1933 claimed that Prescott Bush ‘engaged in a mad expedition’ at Fort Sill to obtain Geronimo’s skull


*Geronimo’s grave was miles from where Prescott Bush was stationed

*The exact location of Geronimo’s grave was unmarked at the time of the alleged theft

*Historians say that, while the Skull and Bones may very well have a Native Indian’s skull, it is unlikely to be that of Geronimo

May 14, 2010

The Obama wit

Filed under: Obama,pakistan,war — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

Victim of a Predator drone attack

April 19, 2010

Video excursion #2

Filed under: Afghanistan,pakistan,Youtube — louisproyect @ 4:26 pm

This is my latest excursion into video production. I have a brief introduction, mostly intended to test technology. If you’ll remember, my last video intro was taken directly on the Macbook and used Photobooth. For some reason, the images and sound were out of sync. This time I used the Macbook camera directly feeding IMovie and the problem went away.

The rest of it is multi-part recordings (Youtube has a ten minute limit per clip) of two talks from last month’s Left Forum. Adaner Usmani and Derrick O’Keefe gave very sharp presentations on Pakistan and Afghanistan which I highly recommend.

My next project, btw, will be a lot more ambitious. I plan to go up to Bard College for commencement weekend and a reunion for the class of ’65. God, I can’t believe how old I am. My intention is to do a poor man’s Ross McElwee documentary that amounts to a radical walking tour of the campus. Not that there is anything radical about Bard, only my impudent commentary on Leon Botstein’s monuments to liberalism and excess.

An introduction

A talk about Pakistani politics

A talk about Afghan politics

March 23, 2010

2010 Left Forum: the Sunday sessions

10am-11:50am: Where’s the Outrage?

I wasn’t exactly sure what this would be about, but wondered if it would address the seeming mystery of why American workers remain so passive in the face of repeated assaults from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Owing to a late start downtown and sluggish subway service, I missed the introduction and walked into a Greg Palast documentary that was in progress. It shows him doing a kind of Michael Moore/Sixty Minutes shtick trying to get some answers from what he calls vultures–financiers who buy up the debt of poor countries at reduced prices and then sue them to get inflated repayments. You can see the impact of the vultures on Liberia and Zambia online.

After the screening, Palast honed in on the Obama administration that he sees as a continuation of the Bush presidency, including the lenient treatment of “vultures”—pointing out how hypocritical it was for Obama to complain about corruption in Africa during a one-day stop in Kenya while giving vultures the right to continue their criminal activities.

During the q&a, a “truther” asked about 9/11, using just the flimsiest connection to Palast’s presentation. His reply was brilliant, pointing out that he was being asked to comment on things he had no knowledge about. It was the perfect retort to a truther, since it put him on the defensive. Investigative reporters and Marxists have to operate on the basis of what is known. Anything else amounts to sterile speculation.

Joel Kovel spoke next. I have known Joel for about 25 years and really admire him. It was a talk he gave on ecology at the Brecht Forum back then that got me interested in the topic. He made an interesting point about the title of the 2010 Left Forum—“the center cannot hold”—that presumably referred to the class polarization taking place today. He reminded us that it came from William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem The Second Coming that seemed to anticipate our situation today:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

He thought that the words “The best lack all conviction” applied to people like us, the attendees of the Left Forum who cannot achieve the kind of impact that the tea-party movement has made. Of course, if we had somebody like Dick Armey funneling millions of dollars into the antiwar movement, we might be having more of an impact.

The real problem is that Joel came to the discussion with a completely different idea about where the outrage matters. I don’t think it makes much difference if Joel Kovel or I am outraged about Obama or Bush or whoever. (And we are.) Politics will not change in this country until the working class begins to wake up to the reality that the ruling class wants to drive down their wages and working conditions until they are little better off than the average Walmart worker.

I should add that Joel concluded his remarks by strongly identifying with the millenarian theme of Yeats’s poem (the Second Coming is at hand) but not so much in the kind of apocalyptic Marxism of the small sects that pass out their flyers at the doorways of the Left Forum. Rather it was a statement that unless the left became religious, ie., began to act on the basis of faith, it would remain irrelevant. This is the kind of thing that Chris Hedges is into, but does not try to convert others into believing. Joel said that the liberation theology in Latin America is what he had in mind, but somehow I doubt that his words would have much effect in getting the average radical into adopting a different mindset—especially people like me and Doug Henwood who, unlike Joel Kovel I’ll bet, were forced to go to Hebrew school and Catholic school respectively. That’s enough to get any thinking young person to give up on religion for the rest of their lives.

Later that evening when I was chatting with my wife about the discussion, I brought up what Malcolm X once said about Black people thinking like their white overlords:

There was two kind of slaves. There was the house negro and the field negro. The house negro, they lived in the house, with master. They dressed pretty good. They ate good, cause they ate his food, what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master, and they loved their master, more than their master loved himself. They would give their life to save their masters house quicker than their master would. The house negro, if the master said “we got a good house here” the house negro say “yeah, we got a good house here”. Whenever the master would said we, he’d say we. That’s how you can tell a house negro. If the master’s house caught on fire, the house negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house negro would say “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself.

I couldn’t help but think that this is basically what afflicted the working class-both white and Black. After decades of an expanding economy, it became easy for workers to think like the boss. Until that began to change, there would be no outrage. With the hammer blows of the capitalist crisis, this will eventually take place and the end result will be a cataclysm that makes the riots of the 1960s look like a garden party.

12pm-1:50pm: New Radical Parties and Experiments in Party Building

This is a topic I am greatly interested in since it relates to one of my major preoccupations ever since I hooked up with Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, namely how to wean the “vanguard” left away from sectarianism. All across Europe there are new initiatives that incorporate ideas about how to make this happen and I try to keep track of different developments, both in terms of failure (RESPECT in Britain) or relative success as might be exemplified by Der Linke in Germany and the NPA in France. The panel had members of both parties and I was anxious to hear what they had to say.

Sebastian Budgen, who works with both Historical Materialism and Verso Press, is a member of the NPA and gave a fascinating talk on the difficulties facing the party that had hitherto been unknown to me. They range from strategic to organizational, a function of weaknesses that were inherited from the LCR as I would learn during the q&a. One strategic problem related to the NPA’s decision to not join the CP-led electoral coalition since its partner was a split from the SP. The NPA refused to coalesce with the CP front unless there was an agreement in advance that it would refuse to support the SP. (It should be stressed that the SP in France is mostly a middle-class party unlike the German SP which is based on the trade unions.) The NPA was attacked on the Socialist Unity blog for taking this tack, something that convinced me that they were probably right since the Socialist Unity blog has become (or always was) the voice of Labour Party reformism.

On the organizational (and political, I guess) front, the NPA has had trouble developing and educating its membership. By disavowing the traditional approach of defending a Marxist program within the historical context of the Russian questions, and by eschewing the democratic centralist norms associated with this trend, it means that NPA members are all over the map ideologically and are not exactly ready to move collectively with the rest of the membership when the need arises. The former LCR members tend to be more disciplined than the newer members who more or less function as independent radicals whose activity rises or falls depending on what is going on in France at any given moment.

During the q&a, I asked Sebastian whether the lax norms of the NPA had something to do with the traditionally laid-back norms of the LCR, which operated in a completely different culture than the English-speaking Trotskyists who tended to take their James P. Cannon to heart. He answered that this was the case and that the LCR was always appalled by the efficiency and cleanliness of the American SWP offices. It would seem that they bent the stick too far in the opposite direction since the NPA has only four full-timers to carry out administrative tasks for an organization of 10,000 members! I wondered to myself if there was still a need to develop the kind of professionalism Lenin wrote about in “What is to be done” while dropping all the “democratic centralist” mumbo-jumbo. I wish the NPA luck in their attempt to do something different from what has failed in the past, but nothing is guaranteed in politics—especially revolutionary politics.

Speaking on Der Linke was Luigi Wolf, a leader of their youth group and a member of the Cliffite IST I suspect since he has written for their magazine and comes across as quite an astute thinker. Despite my disagreement with state capitalist theory and their continued adherence to “democratic centralist” dogma, the IST has an impressive cadre.

Wolf gave a very informative talk on the origins of Der Linke which was basically a coming together of a leftwing split from the West German SP and the CP of East Germany. Despite it being a relatively massive organization, it is not capable of the kind of disciplined and energetic activism of the revolutionary left. This is a function of the trade union and social democratic background of the Western membership and the aging and ex-functionary make-up of the East. Despite this, Der Linke has stood up to the neoliberal drift of German politics and has even raised the possibility of a political general strike to defend the working class gains of the Social Democratic era which, like everywhere else in Europe, is eroding rapidly.

3pm-4:50pm: Of Drones, Warlords and the Taliban: Ending the U.S./NATO Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

There were two speakers, Adaner Usmani, a member of the Labor Party of Pakistan, and my friend Derrick O’Keefe who is co-chair of the Canadian Peace Alliance and author of a book on the courageous Malalai Joya. I don’t want to say too much since I plan to upload their talks to Youtube. But I admit feeling genuine relish when Derrick raised the question about the failure of the American antiwar movement to do anything about the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan since Leslie Cagan, the chair of the feckless UfPJ, was in the audience. She shook her head no and mouthed the words “not true” in the same manner as Samuel Alito reacting to Obama’s State of the Union potshots directed at the Supreme Court. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to this scurrilous observer.

March 16, 2008

Left Forum 2008

Filed under: pakistan,revolutionary organizing,socialism,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Time constraints prevented me from attending today’s sessions of the Left Forum in New York, but I do want report back on what I saw yesterday. As a point of introduction, the Left Forum used to be called the Socialist Scholars Conference but was renamed as a consequence of a power struggle within the organizing committee. Rightwing social democrats sought to purge the conference of its more radical members including the conference organizer Eric Canepa who they viewed as insufficiently Serbophobic. You can read more about this here.

On Saturday morning I went to a panel on “Understanding Turkey Today: Class Dynamics, State Restructuring and Political Alternatives”. A paper was read by its three co-authors who were college professors from Turkey (Fuat Ercan, Marmara University; Selime Guzelsari, Abant Izzet Baysal University; Sebnem Oguz, Trent University in Canada) and judging by their youthful appearance, part of a new generation of Turkish Marxism.

My first exposure to Turkish Marxism at the Socialist Scholars Conference was perhaps 10 years ago when I heard Halil Berktay speak about the implosion of the sectarian left in Turkey that had left him utterly demoralized. Berktay was two years younger than me and part of the 60s generation of radicals that included Ahmet Tonak who used to be subbed to the Marxism list and PEN-L until returning to Turkey. You can read my comments on Berktay’s rather dispirited presentation here.

It is entirely possible that the crisis of the Turkish revolutionary movement of the 1960s is partially responsible for Turkey’s political situation today. A stronger movement might have created an alternative to both the Kemalists and the AKP but as things stand today the Turkish left is divided between nationalist and liberal components, who respectively support these two bourgeois parties.

The presentation seemed heavily influenced by Althusserian theory and focused on the struggle over control of the state between two sectors of the capitalist class. It began by making the point that political change in Turkey is not primarily driven by international factors such as the IMF but by internal class dynamics.

Specifically, the first generation of capitalists in Turkey, which arose in the 50s and 60s, were Kemalist and Istanbul-based. They used their connections to the state to accumulate capital in the form of holding companies. The new generation arose in Anatolia, the eastern and more backward section of the country, and sought international support for their mid-sized enterprises, which often relied on family employees. The new generation sought to differentiate itself from the older generation by stressing Islamic identity.

In reply to an idiotic intervention during the discussion period from the Spartacist League about the need to forge a Trotskyist party, Fuat Ercan pointed out that it is difficult to pose the task of a proletarian revolution in Turkey when the question of who the proletariat is has not been answered adequately. Throughout the country, the work force is in a constant state of flux and the informal sector is pervasive.

Although I had some problems with the Althusserian jargon, I was impressed with the seriousness of the presentation and their obvious grasp of the difficulties facing the Turkish left. It is impossible to build a revolutionary movement without looking hard realities in the face.

I have made available an April 2007 Science and Society article by Ercan and Oguz on “Rethinking Anti-Neoliberal Strategies through the Perspective of Value Theory: Insights from the Turkish Case” here.

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At 3pm I attended a panel on “Lenin’s Return” that I was very much looking forward to since it included a presentation by Lars Lih, the author of “Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context”, a scholarly work that essentially makes the point I have been making for years, namely that Lenin was not inventing a new type of “Leninist” party but simply trying to build a social democratic party in the mode of Kautsky’s party in Germany.

In addition to Lars, there was a presentation by Paul Le Blanc, the author of “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, a work that I value highly even though I disagreed with Paul’s notion that such a party can be built along the lines of James P. Cannon. As will be obvious in a moment or two, it is possible that Paul no longer believes that himself nowadays. Although I am not quite sure whether her presentation was exactly germane to the discussion, Helen Scott of the University of Vermont spoke on Rosa Luxemburg and stressed Luxemburg’s affinities with Lenin, despite the efforts of left anti-Communists to turn her into a kind of Kautsky figure. Finally, parts of a paper written by August Nimtz were read by Paul. August’s mother had died two days earlier, thus preventing his attendance.

Most of Paul’s talk can be described as a general defense of Lenin’s importance and avoided the sorts of controversy that might have been expected at an event such as this. Rather than getting into his ideas about how to rebuild a revolutionary party in the U.S., a topic that was very much on the front burner 10 years ago for him, Paul focused more on what all revolutionaries accept, namely Lenin’s commitment to socialist revolution and his hatred of injustice of all sorts. As a sign of Lenin’s reemergence as a figure to be contended with, Paul referred to “Lenin Reloaded”, a collection of talks from a Historical Materialism conference in London a few years ago that included a number of academic superstars like Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson.

August Nimtz’s paper took aim both at Zizek’s talk and at Lars Lih’s book. Nimtz rejects Zizek’s claim that Lenin represented some kind of “departure” in Marxism. He also rejects Lih’s notion that Lenin was a kind of Russian version of Kautsky. For Nimtz, the key to understanding Lenin is his close ties to Marx and Engels and not in any “departure”, nor in any affinity with German social democracy. Although it is hard to argue with the idea that Lenin was very much in the tradition of Marx and Engels, I was somewhat perplexed with Nimtz’s apparent avoidance of the main issue stressed by Lars Lih, namely the heavy stamp of the German social democracy in “What is to be Done”. Here’s just one of my favorite quotes, which has to do with the question of defining the “vanguard”:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

When you stop and think about this, it seems that there still is a lot to be gained from studying the German socialist movement. Clearly, the party’s parliamentarians and trade union officials had adapted to the German capitalist class, but there’s something to be said for “championing every protest against tyranny”.

Perhaps Nimtz, a former member of the SWP like Paul Le Blanc, still has illusions that “democratic centralism” in the style of James P. Cannon has a future. Since he was not able to attend and since his paper is probably not available on the Internet, I have no way of knowing.

Lars Lih reacted to Nimtz’s challenge with remarkable aplomb and an elfin sense of humor. He gave a presentation that sought to demonstrate that Lenin remained committed to Kautsky’s Marxism even after he broke with him over WWI. Time after time, Lenin referred to the correct ideas of Kautsky in works such as “The Agrarian Question” and expressed disappointment that the German Marxist leader no longer held to his earlier views. In hearing this I was reminded of how George Galloway quoted some of Christopher Hitchens’s earlier antiwar views to him during that infamous debate in N.Y. a few years ago. (I suppose comparing Hitchens to Kautsky is a bit like farce following tragedy but then again Galloway is no Lenin.) I will not try to communicate any more of Lih’s presentation since I will be getting the full paper from him shortly and making it available to you.

One of the more encouraging things about this panel was the presence of a large number of young people in the audience (some of whom who seemed to be members of the ISO). During the discussion period, they were distinguished by the seriousness of their comments and their ability to transcend the narrow sectarianism of the Spartacist League contingent that gave its customary gaseous remarks. One young woman made an excellent point that living up to the spirit of Lenin today means participating in the mass movement rather than constructing “purist” propaganda sects. A young Latino said that although the abuses carried out in the name of “Leninism” should be avoided; there is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. My general perception is that these young people (and the ISO’ers in particular) are wrestling with the problems of sectarianism in the name of building a party like Lenin’s and are seeking to transform it, even if they are hobbled by some “vanguardist” conceptions built into their party’s constitution.

At 5pm I attended an interview on Pakistan given by Tariq Ali to David Barsamian who has been doing this sort of thing for years and is quite good at it, including a 2005 session with Tariq that is available from amazon.com.

Tariq made a number of fascinating points, including some that debunked the notion of an Islamic fundamentalist tidal wave sweeping Pakistan. He noted that no more than 10 percent of the population has voted for Islamic fundamentalist candidates in free elections. He also noted that the spread of madrassas in Pakistan is to be understood more in terms of the lack of public education than any enthusiasm for political Islam. One other bit of evidence of an absence of zealotry is the collaboration of Christian and Muslim farmers who are in a struggle to retain control over public lands that the army is trying to privatize. If which god you prayed to was all that important, these farmers would have never found a way to struggle against their common enemy.

Tariq also had some rather scathing comments on Benazir Bhutto, who he had a number of conversations with when she was in power. When he urged that she adopt some reforms that were rather limited in nature, she pleaded poverty. He then replied that she could do something that did not cost a penny but that could establish her as a groundbreaking reformer. She simply could push through legislation that repealed the emergency laws enacted under military rule. Since her party held a parliamentary majority, such repeal was feasible. She failed to take his advice. Tariq also proposed that if there was one thing that could make her mark in history, it was to establish a girl’s school in every village in Pakistan. Again, she ignored her advice.

Tariq Ali is very eloquent and very informed on his native country. One hopes that a book comes out of it since Pakistan is obviously being drawn into the “war on terror”. He feels that Pakistan has become a crucial element of this imperialist adventure since it is critical to eliminating the challenge to the Afghan government. In his opinion, Afghanistan has become a disaster for the occupiers, even more so than Iraq. But in a period of rising challenges to U.S. hegemony, the resource-poor land has taken on more and more value as a geopolitical asset, including its proximity to China. One top U.S. military official has said something to the effect that we are in Afghanistan because of the threat China poses. Ironically, this does not sound all that different from what I heard in 1965 when the U.S. was first getting involved in Vietnam in a major way.

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