Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 3, 2021

Navalny and the Left

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 11:33 pm
Navalny’s viral video on Putin’s palace (with English subtitles)

As might have been expected, Alexey Navalny has his detractors on the left. Jacobin published an article by Alexey Sakhnin and Per Leander titled “Russia’s Trump” that dismissed his intrepid campaigns against corruption. For the authors, he was trying to “drain the swamp” just like Donald Trump. Sakhnin, who was active in the Left Front in Russia before emigrating to Sweden, followed up with a new screed on Jacobin titled “How a Russian Nationalist Named Alexei Navalny Became a Liberal Hero” that facilely attempted to explain away Navalny’s support for Bernie Sanders in the last election rather than Trump. He saw it as a cynical, Machiavellian maneuver rather than a sincere attempt to address social equality in Russia:

From the protest rallies of 2011-13, Navalny learned an important lesson: it is not right-wing nationalist, but left-wing, social populism that brings real popularity among the people. And although he has often been compared to Donald Trump, he has increasingly turned to a social agenda.

You’ll note the use of passive voice. He has often been compared to Donald Trump? No, comrade Sakhnin, it was you who made such a comparison, wasn’t it?

When I was doing some background research on this article, Sakhnin did not even appear on my radar screen. Instead, I looked for articles in the London Review of Books and LeftEast, where a less conspiratorial mindset prevailed. From the LRB, I tracked down two articles by Tony Wood, who has written some great analysis of Putin’s Russia, including a book I reviewed for CounterPunch in 2018. As for LeftEast, a ‘zine published by Eastern European Marxists, I was particularly interested in what Kirill Medvedev had to say in a roundtable discussion titled “Navalny’s Return and Left Strategy”.

Medvedev is a poet, essayist and Marxist activist who I met back in 2013 and took an instant liking to, not only for his political insights but for his work in translating Charles Bukowski into Russian. Medvedev was on tour promoting a documentary on Putin titled “Winter Go Away” that revealed what a sleazy authoritarian he was. The film was a revelation to me:

Basically the documentary demonstrates how radical the opposition to Putin was. Despite the pro-capitalist leanings of some of the major opposition figures—from multibillionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov to the aforementioned Gary Kasparov (he should stick to chess)—the rank-and-file of the movement are exactly the same kinds of people who occupied Zuccotti Park. Indeed, some of the chants you hear on the demonstrations are directed against Russian capitalism. You see young people heading toward the protests wearing Guy Fawkes masks, etc. The protests have been erroneously described as upper-middle-class temper tantrums funded by George Soros. It takes a huge amount of brass for some leftists to make such an attack when the Putin rallies are staged affairs that make the Republican Party’s look Bolshevik by comparison. Putin’s slogans were mind-numbingly nationalistic, with his well-heeled supporters chanting “Russia, Putin, Victory” at rallies.

The meeting opened my eyes to the Russian left that I have identified with ever since. Indeed, I had already made the case for Pussy Riot on CounterPunch a year earlier as women who had much in common with Abby Hoffman. Those leftists who supported their arrest reminded me of how American conservatives got upset over bra-burning during the Nixon presidency, except in this instance they were lining up with the Kremlin rather than the White House.

The articles pointed to three key years that marked different stages of Navalny’s political evolution: 2012, 2018 and 2020. In 2012, Navalny led mass protests against voter fraud; in 2018, he led mass protests again against pension cuts, thus revealing a turn toward questions of inequality; finally, the return to Russia opened up a new stage in the struggle as anger against crony capitalism boiled over.

In a 2012 LRB article titled “There is no Alternative”, Tony Wood reports on Russia just prior to the presidential election. After Putin’s stooge Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term expired, Putin would be eligible to run again. The Russian constitution limits the presidency to two consecutive terms but after having served twice, and a third time by proxy through Medvedev, Putin was bent on maintaining his rule for another four years. Now that he has indicated to tack on another 4 years in 2024, Putin will have been the longest-running head of state in Russia since Brezhnev.

In Chechnya, an election produced bogus numbers that were the reality equivalent of Trump’s fictional claims about being robbed of victory. After 10 percent of its citizens had been killed by Putin’s invasionary force, they didn’t seem to mind. Putin’s United Russia party got 99.5 percent of the vote on the basis of a 98.6 percent turnout. This would even embarrass Assad.

At the time, Wood took note of Alexi Navalny having both assets and liabilities. In some ways, he is a throwback to the kind of idealistic “clean government” characters so typical of Frank Capra movies. He writes, “But what drives him is not hatred of inequality so much as hatred of cheating: in his view, genuine entrepreneurs haven’t flourished as they should in Russia because of ‘Komsomol bastards’ profiting from political clout or personal networks. For him, malversation [corrupt behavior] is a symptom of Russia’s incomplete transition to capitalism, rather than a structural feature of the kind of capitalism the country has.”

Wood is unstinting about Navalny’s nativism, calling it even worse than Putin’s. Obviously, these liabilities are what Sakhnin focus on but in the context of Russian crony capitalism, Navalny’s intransigent opposition to corruption helped to create a fighting mood that would be manifested five years later in the protests over pension “reform”.

That mood erupted into fury in 2018 when the Russian government proposed a pension “reform” that victimized the elderly, already suffering from inadequate income. In a February 2nd, 2019 article titled “Russia’s Oppositions”, you can see Wood becoming convinced that the Navalny scale had begun to tilt in the assets direction. The regime sought to raise the retirement age for both men and women, from 60 and 55 respectively to 65 and 63. Despite 89 percent of the population being opposed to the change, Putin’s popularity continued to soar, likely a result of his seizure of Crimea. While many on the left tried to put a positive spin on Russia’s population benefiting from oil and gas sales, almost seeing Putin as an authoritarian version of Hugo Chavez, the reality for most pensioners was grim.

In the mid-1990s, IMF and World Bank officials pressured Yeltsin government to reduce pension benefits but unpopularity over the first Chechen war made this impossible. In 2002, Putin was able to push them through using a mix of private and state financing that would be the envy of Charles Koch. Tony Wood reports:

In May, an IMF mission to Russia praised the Putin government’s ‘strong macroeconomic policy framework’, but like Kudrin insisted that ‘the focus has to shift to structural reforms to boost productivity and the supply of labour and capital.’ Any increases in spending on health, education and infrastructure, however, ‘should be done without compromising the credibility of the new fiscal rule’. One way of gaining ‘fiscal space’, the IMF helpfully suggested, would be through ‘parametric pension reform’ – in other words, making fewer people eligible to claim one.

In June 2018, Navalny emerged as a key leader of the pension protests. Showing his allegedly cynical, Machiavellian tendencies, he abandoned his own party’s support for pension “reform”. Or maybe, as Wood put it, it was hard to say what motivated him.

Was this a real shift in his thinking, or was it opportunism, a reaction to the unpopularity of such views among the broader Russian electorate? It’s hard to say, just as it’s hard to say whether Navalny’s unwillingness to join forces with other parties is based more on an understandable aversion to being drawn into the deadening embrace of the pseudo-opposition, or on an overriding need to maintain his distinctive political ‘brand’.

Isn’t it possible that Navalny can be a conniving politician at the same time he is reflecting mass pressure against a corrupt and brutal head of state? Looking at his role dialectically, you might say that he was like many figures in the 1930s who adapted to the revolutionary mood of the masses even though their intention was to contain the fire. I speak here of FDR, not that I am comparing Navalny to FDR but only reminding readers that politicians usually have mixed agendas unless they are someone like V.I. Lenin or Fidel Castro. People writing for Jacobin seem to be complaining that he is no Lenin or Castro. Given their general political orientation, one would think they’d be amenable to someone who supported Bernie Sanders in 2019 rather than Donald Trump.

In one of the more perceptive articles on Navalny’s intentions titled “Russia: The Protest Movement is Younger, Poorer, and More Left Wing” written by Ivan Ovsyannikov for LeftEast, you get a feel for the complexities of the relationship between a mass leader with a tarnished past and a population desperate for any actions that could force the knee off its neck.

It’s not just age. The class composition of opposition protests is also changing. If the metropolitan middle class were the predominant participants in the 2011-2012 protests (or, at least appeared so in eyes of most of the population), then the lower classes were entering the political stage in 2017–2018. “The interviews we conducted at Navalny’s rallies show that they had more poor people, young people and poor teenagers. The protest’s rhetoric also shifted to the left. This is connected both with the change in their social composition and with Navalny’s leftward shift. He’s sensitive to and anticipates public sentiment. By shifting from criticizing dictatorship to criticizing oligarchs, he clearly understood that going beyond a narrowly liberal or nationalist fringe would allow him to expand his constituency and become the sole leader of the opposition,” Oleg Zhuravlev believes.

In his concluding paragraph, Ovsyannikov describes a burgeoning radical movement that sees Navalny as a tool rather than someone to be followed blindly. Those in Russia trying to build an anti-capitalist opposition to Putin might consider the need for far more flexibility than the Jacobin authors would permit:

The populist leadership of the modern Russian opposition movement strikingly distinguishes it from protests at the beginning of the decade. However, according to commentators, the situation may change again. “Since social groups in Russia don’t have a clear identity, the protesters are highly susceptible to the rhetoric of leaders.” “But,” Oleg Zhuravlev adds, “I wouldn’t call the Navalny movement personalistic. A great number of people interviewed at his rallies say: ‘We don’t personally like Navalny, but his protests are the only ones around.’ Today, an increasing number of people think not only in emotionally charged moral categories, but also in terms of group interests. It’s possible, there is already a critical questioning of Navalny from the most radical young protesters.”

In August of 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok as was the case with  Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018. In a pattern consistent with chemical attack investigations in Syria, the left was divided over who was responsible. Writing for CounterPunch, Gary Leupp probably spoke for most on the left:

But this attack on Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter (by somebody) is highly useful to those who want to vilify Vladimir Putin, just as the use of chemical weapons in Syria last April (by somebody) was useful for those wanting to further vilify Bashar Assad and justify a U.S. missile strike. Have you noticed that we live in an age of constant disinformation, misinformation and “fake news”?

Using the same ideological template and the same outlet, Roger Harris wrote: “An alternative explanation for this poisoning story is that this is a setup to discredit and weaken an official enemy of the US imperial state. The nation’s newspaper of record has a long history as a faithful mouthpiece of empire. On spinning the Putin-the-Poisoner tale, the Times has been but one voice in the Russo-phobic chorus of western media.”

As was the case with chemical attacks in Syria that both authors tried to discredit, it was left to Eliot Higgins and his staff at Bellingcat to use open source to track down the perpetrators. I recommend “FSB Team of Chemical Weapon Experts Implicated in Alexey Navalny Novichok Poisoning” that was published on December 14, 2020. Using open source, Bellingcat discovered that throughout 2017, and again in 2019 and 2020, Russian agents in a clandestine unit specialized in poisonous substances followed Navalny during his trips across Russia, trailing him on more than 30 overlapping flights to the same destinations. When the Skripals were poisoned, Bellingcat provided evidence of two spooks from the same unit flying into London and ending up suspiciously close to the paths that the father and daughter took. You might call this circumstantial evidence but given Russia’s denial of any wrongdoing in Syrian chemical attacks might lead to the conclusion that this was sufficient to convict them in a war crimes tribunal.

Interviewed by the snake Aaron Maté and showing a novel take on these hit jobs, long-time Russia commentator Fred Weir doubted that Putin was responsible because “First of all, I’m pretty sure that Russian secret services—and I’m posing this as a question, not as a polemic—but Russian secret services, I think, I’m guessing, know how to kill efficiently and without creating a really loud, scandalous trail leading to themselves.” Of course, this begs the question of how one can get their hands on Novichok unless they have ties to the state apparatus just as was the case with sarin gas in Syria. It is unfortunate, I might add, that a journalist like Weir would allow himself to be interviewed on Grayzone.

After recovering from the poison, Navalny returned to Russia fully determined to continue the struggle against Putin. His arrival and his arrest prompted protests far larger than those seen in 2012 and 2018. Now, for the first time, there were important voices on the Marxist left urging a more flexible approach to Navalny that is not based on dredging atrocity tales about his nativism and neoliberal ideas from a decade ago.

In a response to Alexey Sakhnin and Per Leander’s “Russia’s Trump” article on Jacobin, Ilya Budraitskis, Ilya Matveev, and Sean Guillory advised a less purist approach. Ironically, they reminded me of how many people concluded that Jacobin and DSA were behind the curve on the BLM protests: “This popular upsurge caught the Russian left flatfooted. Though many committed activists and adherents remain in the movement, repression has weakened it, and disagreements over the annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in Ukraine have divided it. How should the Russian left — not to mention the international socialist movement — respond to this upsurge and, especially, its leader?”

Their article is about the best analysis available and a must-read. There is no need for me to recapitulate all of their points but let me cite one of their strongest arguments:

Moreover, Navalny’s campaign has taken strong positions on the Russian economy. He criticizes government authorities not just for being undemocratic but also for creating a predatory system that only profits the top 0.1 percent. While we can’t call him a genuine social democrat, he’s certainly not Trump, whose tax plan greatly benefits the American counterparts of those Navalny attacks in Russia.

I should add that in a EastLeft panel discussion on Navalny, Kirill Medvedev understood Navalny as a transitional figure who it is incumbent on the left to unite with tactically:

But the more convincingly Navalny works with the theme of corruption and the ostentatious consumption of top officials, the more the limits of this rhetoric are exposed in a country like Russia, exhausted by inequality and permeated by class contradictions. Now the situation looks like this: Navalny is showing us the palaces of the rulers, playing with the fire of class resentment, while at the same time (together with his comrades-in-arms) promising businesses complete freedom in the Beautiful Russia of the Future. They say that the problem is not the palaces and gigantic fortunes per se, but where they come from. But of course, with the further development of this populist line, it will no longer be easy to separate the corrupt “friends of Putin” from those whom Navalny calls “honest businessmen,” but whose fortunes are just as huge, and similarly generated by illegal schemes from the 1990s and 2000s and, of course, by over-exploitation of workers. All of this opens up great opportunities for leftist politics, which, with an equally skillful combination of valor and rationality, could produce a far more powerful wave of discontent and a far more coherent program of change than Navalny’s eclectic populism.

“Navalny is showing us the palaces of the ruler” is a reference to the viral video Navalny made about a palace reputedly owned by Putin on the Black Sea. After the controversy broke, one of Putin’s oligarchic pals claimed that it was owned by him rather than Putin. In any case, it probably didn’t matter to the masses, who clearly had the same fury that Ukrainians had when they took a tour of the fallen would-be Putin Yanukovych’s presidential manor.

None of this seems to matter to many on the American left, who are preparing the same tired “anti-imperialist” talking points they’ve used on Ukraine, Syria or any other nation aligned with Russia. Worst of all that I have seen recently is the dreck that Jim Naureckas wrote on Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). His article is basically to smear Navalny with stands he took a decade ago, as is the custom with these crypo-Stalinist scribblers. The last paragraphs should give you a feel:

After telling readers that he has “Nordic good looks, a caustic sense of humor and no political organization,” Troianovski’s predecessor Ellen Barry (12/9/11) related some rather more relevant background:

He has appeared as a speaker alongside neo-Nazis and skinheads, and once starred in a video that compares dark-skinned Caucasus militants to cockroaches. While cockroaches can be killed with a slipper, he says that in the case of humans, “I recommend a pistol.”

FAIR, as most of my readers are aware, used to be a reputable critic of the bourgeois media but over the past 10 years has pretty much turned into a clone of Grayzone, maybe even getting rubles under the table. Back in 2013, Naureckas took the reporting on Mint Press at face value on the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta in 2013 Not long after the Mint Press article appeared under the byline of AP reporter Dale Gavlak, Gavlak screamed bloody murder because she did not write the article, nor did she agree with the analysis. More on the controversy is here. Any investigative reporter would have put in the time and effort to get to the bottom of the story but Naureckas is no reporter, just a cheap propagandist.

Perhaps the intensity of the debate about Navalny has been generated by the facts on the ground. With the largest protests in recent history, he could no longer be ignored. Using bogus charges of embezzlement and parole violations, he now faces a new trial that will result in him being exiled to a prison camp far from the streets of Moscow. Will this amount to putting the genie back into the bottle? It is difficult to day, but one must take into account his ability to connect with the masses. The real power is in their hands. In any case, we are entering a new period in Russian politics that this article hoped to clarify. My advice is to keep your eyes on Russia since as Lenin said (possibly apocryphal), “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen”.

February 1, 2021

Who is Mr. Putin

Filed under: Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 11:31 pm

February 26, 2020

Thoughts triggered by ex-ISOers seeing the light

Filed under: electoral strategy,Lenin,reformism,Russia,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

On January 31st, ex-ISOer Alan Maass posted a nearly 9,500 word article on Medium that offered “a retrospective assessment of the politics of the former ISO on elections and some thoughts on socialist organization.” It boiled down to a self-criticism for his past belief that revolutionary socialists must oppose the Democratic Party on principle. Only a year and a half ago, Maass wrote an article for the ISO newspaper arguing the exact opposite. I guess a lot can change in 18 months. Must be something wrong with me, I suppose. After voting for LBJ in 1964, who promised that he would not “send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” that was it for me. Fifty-six years ago and I am still pissed.

Like Alan Maass, fellow born-again democratic socialist Paul Heideman also argued against supporting the DP four years ago, when he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “It’s Their Party.” It told the story of how SDS supported LBJ in 1964 as part of a realignment strategy to purge the DP of its segregationist Congressmen. He credits Max Shachtman with the realignment strategy that he described as representing “one of the high points of the struggle for social democracy in the United States.” That sounds like a pretty low bar but what do I know? This long article finally gets around to the essential point:

Any political action comes with opportunity costs, and the costs of a strategic focus on electing Democrats have been grave — from the labor movement’s inability to defend itself against attacks from “their” party to antiwar movements that disappear when a Democrat comes to office.

Unlike Maass, Heideman never came out with a mea culpa. Instead, without any fanfare, he resurfaced in 2019 as a full-blooded Sandernista, indistinguishable from any other Jacobin author. He even goes further. He advises Sanders against defining himself as a “good socialist” as opposed to a bad socialist like Maduro or Castro. It is best to avoid those divisive questions about what capitalism or socialism from some pedantic standpoint as if it really mattered. Instead, just equate socialism with all the great things that have sprung up under Democratic Party rule:

He should point to the long line of policies that have been denounced as socialist and are now bedrock institutions of American life. Social Security? They called it socialist. Unions? A socialist project. Medicare? A socialist takeover of health care.

Yeah, sure. Who would want to get into such boring and irrelevant matters such as the right of American companies to have more money than entire countries. Walmart, for example, had revenue of $486 billion in 2017, out-earning the sixth-largest economy in the euro zone – Belgium, with a GDP of $468 billion. If it were a country, Walmart would be ranked 24th in the world by GDP. Has Bernie Sanders ever questioned the right of the Walton family to own 11,503 stores and clubs in 27 countries? Not unless he wanted to be called a communist or something.

Ex-ISOer Danny Katch is another fellow traveler on the Road to Damascus. Understanding that brevity is the soul of wit, Katch takes only 1,225 words to let Indypendent readers know that even though the Democratic Party is undemocratic, the path to making it democratic runs through the trail blazed by Bernie Sanders and “the squad”.

If Sanders becomes president, he would have to try to democratize the Democrats as part of the fight to enact his agenda without disastrous compromises. If these efforts fail to redeem an irredeemable party, they could at least start a national conversation about the long-overdue creation of a legitimate U.S. socialist party.

Even more emphatic than Maass and Heideman, Katch wrote an article in 2016 titled “Why I Won’t Be Voting For Bernie” that gave me hope that the ISO would become the badly needed pole of attraction needed for a mass socialist movement. As should be obvious by now, the comrades wilted under the pressure generated by the DSA. It makes me wonder how committed the comrades ever were to the task of strengthening the class independence of the left.

Katch’s article makes points identical to those I have been making in recent weeks on Facebook where it seems like 75 percent of my “friends” are gung-ho over Bernie Sanders:

I have enthusiastically felt the Bern this past week, without ever questioning my decision to not vote for him (or Clinton) in the Democratic primary tomorrow.

Not because Sanders’s isn’t “radical enough” for me–although I do consider his version of socialism to be more like old-fashioned liberalism, especially his unquestioning support for the right of the U.S. to bomb and invade other countries.

But if a candidate with Sanders’ platform were running as an independent, I would strongly consider supporting the campaign and working within it to try to push it further to the left. Bernie is running as a Democrat, however, and like other members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), I don’t vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle.

What exactly did Katch mean by “principle”? What do Marxists regard as principles? Every so often, these questions come to the fore. In 2017, the DSA had a bit of a scandal on its hands when it was discovered that Danny Fetonte, a newly elected member of their National Political Committee, was a longtime organizer for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT)—the largest organization representing Texas cops. He stepped down subsequently.

Crossing a picket line is also a matter of principle. Under no circumstances should socialists cross a picket line. This question divided the left in 1968 when both the Trotskyist SWP and the Maoist PLP took the side of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville administrators in New York who were trying to purge racist teachers from their schools. When Albert Shanker organized a strike to keep them in place, it was necessary to side with those fighting for community control.

Socialists have also opposed on principle settling disputes in the capitalist courts. Even when one group libels another, it is very rare for the aggrieved party to file a suit. Closely related to this is the principle that you should not use violence within the movement. Back in the 60s, this was a major problem since the Maoist groups and Larouche arrogated to themselves the right to use violence since their adversaries were supposedly outside the movement.

When it comes to voting for bourgeois parties, it becomes a bit more complicated. To start with, those on the left looking for an escape clause from the burdensome task of swimming against the stream. After all, it takes a lot of backbone, if not stubbornness, to resist the seductive popularity of an FDR or a Bernie Sanders. There’s always the precedent of the IWA, the first socialist international, sending congratulations to Abraham Lincoln for his electoral victory. If opposing capitalist parties is a principle, how could Marx and Engels endorse Lincoln? Keep in mind that they were on record of calling for workers to run their own candidates in 1850 in an address to an early communist group:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.

As I have said, Marx and Engels were on solid grounds congratulating Lincoln but were far from grasping the complex relationship of class and racial forces during the Civil War. They saw Lincoln as completing what amounted to a bourgeois revolution that would put the workers of the north in a better position to build a socialist movement. When the abolitionists lined up with Victoria Woodhull, Marx and Engels threw their considerable weight behind her rival Friedrich Sorge who saw the Irish immigrant worker as more crucial to the revolutionary movement than the emancipated blacks. Suffice it to say that Marx and Engels were not close enough to the situation to anticipate how convenient it was for Republicans to abandon black people by 1877. In any case, by the time Reconstruction ended, it should have been obvious that the two-party system was well on its way to maintaining its stranglehold on American politics.

That is why Engels saw any challenge to the two-party system as critical, even when it came to the election campaign of Henry George who clearly had no clue about the abc’s of socialism. In a letter to the clueless Friedrich Sorge in 1886, Engels made the case for backing a “confused and highly deficient” party set up under the banner of Henry George:

The rottenest side of the K. of L. [Knights of Labor] was their political neutrality, which resulted in sheer trickery on the part of the Powderlys, etc. [Terrence Powderly was the head of the Knights of Labor]; but this has had its edge taken off by the behaviour of the masses at the November elections, especially in New York. The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, far more rapidly than we had a right to hope, and that is the main thing. That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement–no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement–in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.

You’ll note that Engels speaks of “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.” This, in other words, is a restatement of what he and Marx advised in 1850. It might even be said that the endorsement of Lincoln was something of an outlier, but hardly equivalent to backing any other Republican following his death.

I’d make the case that it took the German and Russian socialist movements to fully come to terms with a principled basis for electoral politics. In Germany, the socialists were divided between Marxists and Lassalleans. The Marxists advocated a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist state, while Lassalle’s followers (he died in a duel in 1864) sought concessions from the state, especially when it was led by an enlightened politician like Otto Von Bismarck. While most leftists today, including Bernie Sanders, regard the New Deal as virtually synonymous with socialism, it might be argued that Bismarck was as progressive as FDR, if not more so. In volume four of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution”, you can see how willing Bismarck was to support progressive measures as a way of undermining the revolutionary left:

In 1883 a Sickness Insurance Act was passed, with the workers contributing only a third of the cost. In 1884 an Accident Insurance Law followed, with costs borne by employers alone. In 1889 an Old Age and Disability measure was adopted. In 1903 came a code of factory legislation, with a system of labor exchanges to promote employment. Many of these measures were the first of their kind in the world; by the time of the world war Germany had become the model land of advanced social legislation, under the pressure of the absolutist state, not the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps if Bismarck had not been so determined to crush the Socialist Party, Lassalle’s ideas would have gotten a bigger foothold. Leaving aside Kautsky’s problematic understanding of how a revolution might be possible, you at least have to give him credit for seeing the need for class independence. In chapter five of “The Erfurt Program”, his call for independent political action on a principled class basis can hardly be mistaken for the “dirty break” policies advanced in his name:

The interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are of so contrary a nature that in the long run they cannot be harmonized. Sooner or later in every capitalist country the participation of the working-class in politics must lead to the formation of an independent party, a labor party.

At what moment in its history the proletariat of any particular country will reach the point at which it is ready to take this step, depends chiefly upon its economic development. In some degree, also, it depends upon two other conditions, the insight of the working-class into the political and economic situation and the attitude of the bourgeois parties toward one another.

When you keep in mind that Lenin’s chief goal was to build a party in Czarist Russia that lived up to the example of the German social democracy, you can easily understand why he would be so adamantly opposed to forming blocs with the Cadets as advocated by the Mensheviks. Certainly, the Erfurt Program was uppermost in Lenin’s mind when he proposed a program for the Russian movement in 1899 that openly stated, “We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.”

If you want to understand the differences between those on the left today who see the question of support for a bourgeois party on a principled rather than a tactical basis, the best place to start is with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks. With all proportions guarded, the Cadets were the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia consisting of a liberal, modernizing section of the bourgeoisie that hoped to see an end to the monarchy but without the resolve needed to lead a bourgeois revolution. Lenin hoped to push the Cadets aside and lead such a revolution (it turned out to require a working-class leadership) but had to deal with the Mensheviks who saw the Cadets as allies.

The Mensheviks considered Lenin to be impractical and obstinate. Like Jacobin today that views a Nordic model as the only feasible socialism for a country in which revolution is no longer possible, the Mensheviks set their sights low. It would take an extended period of enlightened bourgeois rule to allow the working-class movement to gather the strength it needed to gain power.

While undoubtedly the ex-ISOers would never accept the idea that they are the counterparts of the Russian Mensheviks, their rallying around the Sandernista banner leads this observer to believe that they find it much easier to swim with the current. In a 1906 polemic against the Mensheviks, Lenin refers to the possibility that they are wilting under the pressure of a much larger, wealthier and legally unfettered capitalist party: “But what about the bourgeois opportunists? They own a press ten times larger than that of the Social-Democrats and the Socialist-Revolutionaries put together.” I imagine if Lenin were alive today, he would coolly appraise the democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party, with the massive coverage it gets in the bourgeois press, and still insist that we stick to our principles.

Just as 1914 threw socialism into a crisis across Europe, you can expect a convergence of late capitalist decrepitude and political routinism on the left to create a fertile ground for the kind of revolutionary socialism that is no longer fashionable. My recommendation is to stick to your principles, comrades, since they are the only way you will be able to be effective in a period when the walls start caving in around us.

January 28, 2020


Filed under: Film,Russia,WWII — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

Opening at the Film Forum in N.Y. tomorrow, “Beanpole” is a Russian film set in Leningrad just after the war has ended. In addition to the shattered buildings left behind in the 900-day siege, there are also shattered human beings who survived by their wits and a stubborn desire to enjoy a normal life once again.

Among those who will have the hardest time living a normal life again are the veterans in a military hospital who have suffered either grievous wounds and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. The nurses caring for them have suffered as well, including Iya, who is nicknamed beanpole because of her towering height and willowy build. When we first meet her, she is standing as still as a statue in the nurses’ quarters. As a former anti-aircraft gunner, her PTSD is manifested by unpredictable freezes that last for a few minutes and that made her unfit for further duty.

When she is not caring for the patients, she is in her room looking after Peshka, a toddler who craves both her attention and food. The first she can easily supply, the second on a hit-and-miss basis. Although the siege has ended, the population is just one step ahead of feeding on cats and dogs as had been the case during the war. One day, as she was playfully roughhousing with the boy, she freezes up when he is beneath her and becomes collateral damage of the Nazi’s genocidal attack.

Not long after the boy has died, Iya’s sister anti-aircraft gunner Masha shows up at the hospital to reunite with Peshka, who has been left in her friend’s care. Iya breaks the sad news that the boy has died but in his sleep rather than under her immobile body. Having been robbed of normal human reactions by four years of fighting on the front lines, Masha takes the news in stride and even remains dispassionate after learning later on that Iya was at fault.

After taking a job as a nurse, Masha hopes to rebuild her life. With her husband a casualty of the war, her top priority is finding a man who can provide the seed she needs to create a new life. Learning that battleground wounds have left her sterile, she insists that Iya must become pregnant on her behalf. Since Iya is suffering from PTSD and had little interest in men to begin with, that becomes a demand that threatens to destroy their friendship.

Unlike any film I have seen in decades, “Beanpole” hearkens back to the golden age of Russian cinema as seen in “And Quiet Flows the Don” or “The Cranes Are Flying”. Like the second film, it is a wrenching tale of the emotional and physical costs of WWII. Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 classic is a tale of redemption and concludes with the characters looking forward to life of peace and socialist prosperity. Given the post-Soviet sensibility of the 28-year old director/screenwriter Kantemir Balagov, hopes are placed most of all in the sisterhood the two principal actresses share.

In the director’s statement that accompanies this film that is the Russian entry for best foreign film in the upcoming Academy Awards, he stresses the importance of telling not just the story of the two women but a city that perhaps one day will be renamed Leningrad in honor of the resistance it made famous:

Beanpole is my second feature film. It is very important to me that my story takes place in 1945. My heroes, like the city they live in, are mangled by a horrible war. They live in a city that has endured one of the worst sieges in the history of warfare. This is a story about them and about people they meet in Leningrad, the obstacles that they have to overcome and the way they are treated by society. They are psychologically crippled by the war and it will take time for them to learn to live their normal lives.

I am interested in the fates of women and especially women who fought in the Second World War. According to data, this was the war with the highest participation of women. As an author, I am interested in finding an answer to the question: what happens to a person who is supposed to give life after she passes through the trials of war?

November 18, 2019

Mayakovsky and Stalin

Filed under: Russia,theater — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1910

Playwright Murray Mednick as “Old Nana” in Coyote V: Listening to Old Nana at Padua Playwrights Workshop (circa 1980) (Photo by Margaret Von Biesen)

Although I stopped going to the theater in New York about 20 years ago, I made a point of seeing Murray Mednick’s “Mayakovsky and Stalin” several weeks ago at the Cherry Lane Theater just days before its closing. I was obviously interested in the subject matter but even more so to see something by Murray who grew up in Woodridge, my home town. For reasons I don’t fully understand, some people who graduated from my high school just four or five years ahead of me went on to distinguished writing careers.

Starting out as the ghost writer for V. C. Andrews following her death in 1986, Andrew Neiderman now writes novels in his own name and is now the 73rd best selling American novelist of all time. After graduating Fallsburg Central High School, my friend and fellow 60s radical Michael Elias went out to Hollywood and became a screenwriter for some of the greatest comedies of the 1970s, including “The Frisco Kid” and “The Jerk”. As for Murray, he founded Padua Playwrights Productions, a Los Angeles-based theater company, in 1978. Among the participants in Padua’s yearly festivals were Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard, and John Steppling. The name Steppling might be familiar to CounterPunch readers, where his articles appear from time to time. He was also a contributor to Swans Magazine, where dozens of my articles can also be found.

After reviewing Murray’s play, I’ll offer my own thoughts on the Stalin/Mayakovsky connections.

Absent the conventional backdrops of a play such as furniture meant to lend a naturalist touch, “Mayakovsky and Stalin” comes across at first as a staged reading. Indicating that it is a play are the period costumes the cast wears, especially the Stalin’s white military tunic.

Essentially, there are two separate dramas that unfold in the course of this two-act play, with two separate ensembles having no interaction with each other. The entire cast first appears sitting on backless chairs at the rear of the stage. When it is their time to speak, characters from one ensemble come to the front of the stage, while the lights dim on the seated members of the other ensemble who wait their turn.

One ensemble features Stalin, his second wife Nadya, and Kirov, a close friend of Stalin who ran the CP offices in Leningrad. Kirov was killed by a gunman in the Smolny Institute in 1934, an event used as a pretext to begin the repression that culminated in the Moscow Trials. Victor Serge wrote a great novel titled “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” that was based on these events. As a character in Murray’s play, Kirov mostly functions as a Soviet toady, seeing the country’s future as infinitely bounteous, just as long as Stalin as was in the driver’s seat. Nadya is Kirov’s polar opposite. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the USSR, as reflected in her stormy confrontations with both her husband and his Panglossian comrade, she finally kills herself with a Mauser pistol in 1932.

Suicide with a Mauser pistol is what connects Stalin to the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Like Nadya Stalin, he killed himself with such a weapon in 1930. Although his suicide note did not reflect any disenchantment with Stalin’s rule, by this time he had become weary of criticisms from Stalinist officials who no longer saw any value in the kind of experimental poems Mayakovsky wrote. They were preparing the way for a “proletarian art” that lacked the poet’s complexity and wit. 150,000 people attended his funeral, the largest in Soviet history next to Lenin and Stalin’s.

As part of the Mayakovsky ensemble, the cast includes Osip and Lilya Brik, a husband-and-wife completely devoted to the poet. It also includes Lilya Brik’s older sister Elsa, who like her sister, was madly in love with him. As for Osip Brik, a wealthy Jew who providing funding for Russian futurist poets, he accepted his wife’s affair with Mayakovsky. He and the two sisters, however, were always arguing about how to evaluate his career, especially in a period when it was being devalued by the state.

Murray’s emphasis is not on Soviet society but on the thorny relations between Stalin and Nadya on one side and the complex relationship between the Briks, Elsa and the poet on the other. The Briks and Elsa lived together in a menage a trois until Mayakovsky’s untimely death at his own hand, when he was only 36. Without taking anything away from Murray’s play, their personal relationship figured more in its writing than Mayakovsky’s fall from favor in an increasingly bureaucratized USSR. Indeed, in the program handed out at the Cherry Lane Theater, there’s a note on the play by Guy Zimmerman, the artistic director of Padua, that describes Mayakovsky as a vainglorious figure who deserved the ridicule the Brik sisters direct at him throughout. There is little indication of his earlier charismatic engagement with the masses, a concession that Murray would very likely be unwilling to make to the Soviet experiment.

Like Sergei Eisenstein and Kazimir Malevich, Mayakovsky saw art as a revolutionary weapon. After 1917 and until the late 20s, the USSR allowed artists free rein, even during the NEP when police state measures first began to crop up. Despite the affinity between Bolshevik leaders and the artistic avant-garde, there were occasional clashes. In December 1918 Mayakovsky and Osip Brik met with Vyborg CP officials to set up a Futurist group affiliated to the party called Komfut. It was founded in January 1919, but dissolved by Anatoly Lunacharsky soon afterward.

Commemorating Mayakovsky a year later, Lunacharsky extolled his devotion to the revolution but frowned on a certain softness and sentimentality in his poems that demonstrated a failure to become fully proletarian in his outlook. He had a double psyche, one was cast iron and proletarian; the other was a flower and petty-bourgeois. Lunacharsky wrote:

This divided personality means that Mayakovsky is amazingly characteristic of our transitional times. It would have really been a miracle if he had not advanced battling on the way, if he had been able to kill this inner soft petty bourgeois, this sentimental lyric without any difficulty at all and immediately become a poet-tribune. Perhaps a true proletarian poet, coming from the ranks of the proletariat, a true social revolutionary of the Leninist type, a Lenin in poetry, will follow this road. But Mayakovsky was not such a poet. That is why the battles he fought, the obstacles he overcame, the struggle he waged to overcome himself were so significant.

Lunacharsky was a supporter of Leon Trotsky, who also weighed in on the poet’s suicide in a 1930 article:

It is not true that Mayakovsky was first of all a revolutionary and after that a poet, although he sincerely wished it were so. In fact Mayakovsky was first of all a poet, an artist, who rejected the old world without breaking with it. Only after the revolution did he seek to find support for himself in the revolution, and to a significant degree he succeeded in doing so; but he did not merge with it totally for he did not come to it during his years of inner formation, in his youth.

To view the question in its broadest dimensions, Mayakovsky was not only the “singer,” but also the victim, of the epoch of transformation, which while creating elements of the new culture with unparalleled force, still did so much more slowly and contradictorily than necessary for the harmonious development of an individual poet or a generation of poets devoted to the revolution. The absence of inner harmony flowed from this very source and expressed itself in the poet’s style, in the lack of sufficient verbal discipline and measured imagery. There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class, or an outright tasteless joking which the poet seems to erect as a barrier against being hurt by the external world.

Reading Trotsky’s words “There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class” only makes me feel much more sympathetic to the poet Mayakovsky. If this was the attitude of someone who would be murdered by Stalin just a decade later, imagine how lost and how depressed Mayakovsky must have become by the bureaucratic hardening of the Soviet state that was even influencing its most committed revolutionary leaders.

As for the suicide of Stalin’s wife, it is shrouded in mystery. She left no note and there’s very little historical accounts of her marriage to the dictator. It is worth considering what Isaac Deutscher wrote in his biography of Stalin that was considered practically Stalinist by James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism. In Deutscher’s view, Nadya killed herself in November 1932 after she spoke her mind about Communist Party purges and the famine and was met by a flood of vulgar abuse from Stalin.

If Deutscher was basing his analysis on reports from those close to her in 1932, there was even more of a connection between Mayakovsky and Stalin than Murray Mednick attempted to make in a play that deserves to be made available online or—better yet—staged again in New York or any other city that has an adventurous theater company willing to challenge an audience’s understanding of the 20th century’s tragic devolution.


June 7, 2019


Filed under: Film,Kevin Coogan,music,Russia — louisproyect @ 11:30 pm

Opening today at Film Noir Cinema, a new theater in Brooklyn, and at the Laemmle in L.A. on June 21, “Leto” (summer) is a Russian film about the burgeoning rock and roll scene there in the early 80s that is simply rapturous. It is based on two of the period’s top musicians who are seen in their early struggling period: Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko. A good half of the film is devoted to performances based on their music and will remind you of why rock and roll will never die. Despite living in the Brezhnev era, Viktor and Mike find ways to express themselves, even when it involves feinting and ducking the repressive tendencies of the bureaucrats overseeing rock and roll concerts. Instead of banning the music, much of the effort is directed toward making it more consistent with Soviet values. However, if your favorite musicians are Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols and Blondie, there’s bound to be challenges to the peaceful co-existence between artist and officialdom.

The film is directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, whose apartment and studio were raided by Russian cops in 2017 to find evidence of embezzlement. Since Serebrennikov had criticized the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and spoken out in support of Russia’s LGBT community, many understood this as veiled political repression and spoke in his defense.

I am not familiar with Serebrennikov’s earlier work but based on the evidence of “Leto”, I would regard him as one of the major filmmakers in today’s Russia. Although “Leto” is mostly in black-and-white, color is introduced for maximum impact in key scenes. It is impossible to determine who his influences are but “Leto” reminds me of Richard Lester’s “Hard Days Night”, except focused on obscure and struggling musicians rather than superstars. What “Leto” and “Hard Day’s Night” have in common is a seamless transition between musical performance and narrative drama that are mutually reinforcing.

Serebrennikov also introduces surrealistic touches that will remind you of Lester. For example, in one of my favorite scenes, Viktor and Mike’s wife Natasha are taking a bus to bring a cup of coffee to where Mike works (rock and roll has not yet begun to pay the rent) and midway there people on the bus, stolid and elderly Soviet men and women, begin to sing Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”—a bit off-key but totally rock and roll.

The plot revolves around the triangle that involved Natasha sleeping with Viktor but only after Mike had given his blessing. Suffice it to say that Mike, who loved Viktor’s music, was never moved to break off relations. The image we get of the rock musician milieu of the early 80s in Russia is one that is marked by solidarity and affection. Given the state of Russia today, you might conclude that there was a subtle message in Serebrennikov’s film, namely that such musicians were the heart and soul of the country and an obvious inspiration for Pussy Riot and other counter-culture figures of the left who were as disgusted with Russian society as Lou Reed was with the USA.

“Leto” is based on the memories of Natalia Naumenko, Mike Naumenko’s wife. Mike, who died in 1991 at the age of 36 from alcohol abuse, was the leader of Zoopark, a band that performed songs that were often translations or interpretations of the western rock songs of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or T. Rex according to Wikipedia. Viktor Tsoi, a Korean who grew up in Kazakhstan, led a band named Kino. Referring once again to the essential Wikipedia. I discovered that despite his fame, he led a modest life, even keeping his old job in the boiler room of an apartment building after achieving huge success. His songs, like Naumenko’s, were political. Wikipedia states:

1987 was a breakthrough year for Kino. The release of their 6th album Blood Type (Gruppa Krovi) triggered what was then called “Kinomania”. The open political climate under glasnost allowed Tsoi to make Blood Type, his most political album, yet it also allowed him to record a sound of music that no one before him had been able to play. Most of the tracks on the album were directed at the youth of the Soviet Union, telling them to take control and make changes within the nation; some of the songs addressed the social problems crippling the nation. The sound and lyrics of the album made Tsoi a hero among Soviet youth and Kino the most popular rock band ever. In the diverse Soviet republics, fans translated his originally Russian lyrics into their native languages as well.

Like Naumenko, Tsoi died at an early age. In 1990, at the age of 28, he fell asleep at the wheel and died in a crash. As a sign of his transcendent appeal, even officialdom paid its respects in a Komsomolskaya Pravda obit.

Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock

“Leto” is a great film and likely to be my pick for best foreign-language film of 2019. Do not miss it.

May 21, 2019

Putin, Trump, the Christian Right, Austrian fascists, and the schizoid left

He paved the way for Max Blumenthal and Roger Waters

I came across articles this week that demonstrate how both Christian evangelists in the USA and the alt-right Freedom Party in Austria have been building ties to the Kremlin. An Open Democracy article titled “Revealed: Trump-linked US Christian ‘fundamentalists’ pour millions of ‘dark money’ into Europe, boosting the far right” was written by Claire Provost on March 27, 2019. It demonstrates how US Christian right ‘fundamentalists’ linked to the Trump administration and Steve Bannon are key players that have poured at least $50 million of ‘dark money’ into Europe.

Meanwhile, the same kind of affinities have been shared by the Kremlin and the same alt-right parties, including Austria’s Freedom Party that has been undone by a sting carried out by unidentified parties which showed the party’s Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache meeting with a woman in Ibiza who represented herself as the niece of a Russian oligarch. The party’s first leader was Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi functionary and SS member. It became the first far right party since the end of WWII to become part of a government when Jörg Haider entered a coalition with the conservative People’s Party in 2000.

In exchange for supporting Russian interests, Strache would be expected to receive secret and illegal donations from the oligarch to the tune of millions of Euros. In the same week that I noticed any number of articles on my FB timeline calling attention to the valiant role of the USSR in defeating Nazism, I wondered how many people posting links to them were aware that the Freedom Party is trying to recreate the Third Reich. An Atlantic Monthly article on the scandal reported:

A state senator for the Freedom Party, reporters revealed, once belonged to a fraternity that openly glorified the Third Reich. (“At that point, the Jew Ben Gurion came into their midst,” go the lyrics for one of the fraternity’s songs, “and said: ‘Step on the gas, ye old Teutons, we’ll manage the seventh million.’”)

People on the left who try to debunk the notion that Trump is pro-Russia will always bring up matters such as how the Ukrainians are receiving heavy weapons from the Pentagon or how sanctions have been maintained and even beefed up. They take Trump at his word when he says that he is the most anti-Russian president the country has ever seen.

However, they don’t bother to address the question of how the Kremlin colludes—dare I use the word?with Christian evangelicals. To a large extent, this simply reflects the tendency of some on the left with a particularly Manichean brand of geopolitics to act as if the Cold War had never ended. During the Cold War, the Christian right was a mainstay of the anti-Communist crusade. Billy Graham, For example, in the summer of 1954, spoke to 25,000 West Germans gathered in Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadium about how Berlin was “a battleground, a continent for conquest”. During the Vietnam War, Graham agreed with Nixon that bombing the dikes in the North would be necessary even if it cost the lives of a million Vietnamese.

But his son Franklin had a different take on Russia. In March 2014, Decision Magazine, a publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, featured a cover article on Vladimir Putin. Inside, a Franklin Graham op-ed praised Putin’s signing a law barring the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to children. He wrote: “It’s obvious that President Obama and his administration are pushing the gay-lesbian agenda in America today and have sold themselves completely to that which is contrary to God’s teaching,” Graham wrote. In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”

Mother Jones took note of the ties between Russia and the Christian right just around the time that Decision Magazine article appeared. The World Congress of Families decided to hold its annual meeting in Russia that year. The WCF is one of the most powerful voices of the Christian right. Showing its continuing ties to the European far right, it held its annual conference this year in Verona, Italy where Matteo Salvini, the fascist Interior Minister of Italy, spoke on the need “to defend the family that consists of a mother and a father”. Other participants included Dimitri Smirnov, a Russian Orthodox priest who says abortion is  “scarier than the Holocaust” and Forza Nuova, an Italian neofascist party.

Does the sting of the Freedom Party leader in Ibiza mean that he was like some poor soul in the USA who was entrapped to take part in some illegal act, like bombing a synagogue? While I am opposed to stings of this sort as a matter of principle, there is little doubt that Putin is for the rightwing coalition government in Austria until the scandal forced the withdrawal of Strache and other party members.

Russia has naturally denied any ties to Strache’s party but at least one journalist noticed disturbing contacts not only between Putin and these fascists but with Trump as well. In a December 20, 2016 Progress Pond article titled “Trump, Austrian Neo-Nazis, and Putin”, Martin Longman reported that Strache came to New York just after Trump’s election to meet with Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor who subsequently stepped down after he was charged with unauthorized communications with Russian officials. Oh, did I mention that he sat at the same table with Max Blumenthal and Vladimir Putin for the RT.com 10th anniversary banquet in 2015?

A day before the Progress Pond article was published, the NY Times described the fallout from the Strache-Flynn meeting. A cooperation agreement outlined plans for regular meetings to hammer out economic, business and political projects. It was signed by Sergei Zheleznyak, a member of Putin’s United Russia Party. In welcoming the fascists to his party headquarters, Zheleznyak cited Europe’s “migration crisis” as a field for cooperation. I can’t say I am surprised that this is a field of cooperation since the European fascist movement prioritizes nativism as well as homophobia and anti-abortion laws just as does the Trump administration.

In the 1950s, schizophrenia was often mislabeled as an illness entailing a “split personality”. In fact, the word “schizo” is Greek for split. It was confused with dissociative identity disorder that was dramatized in the 1957 film “Three Faces of Eve” that was based on a true story of a woman manifesting 3 different personalities. In 2016, M. Night Shyamalan upped the ante with “Split”, a film whose main character had 23 different personalities.

Perhaps the first popular culture expression of this phenomenon was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde”, in which the transformation to the evil Mr. Hyde was triggered by chemicals produced in a laboratory rather than in the brain.

It occurs to me that the Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde duality is rampant on the left today with many people saying all sorts of good things about the Palestinians but evil things about the Syrians because of their embrace of Manichean geopolitics that sees support for every Kremlin initiative as incumbent on “anti-imperialists”. Max Blumenthal is a prime example although one has to wonder if his being paid in rubles rather than ideology or chemical imbalances explains his evil writings on Syria. You get the same thing with Roger Waters and Susan Sarandon who would likely martyr themselves on behalf of the Palestinians when their “good” half takes over but when the “evil” half kicks in, they have no trouble defaming the half-million or so martyred Syrians as jihadists who deserved what they got.

Today, the left is mobilized around the threat to abortion rights in places like Alabama, Georgia and Ohio that is being pushed by the Christian right. It is this very Christian right that Steve Bannon is aligned with as it hopes to transform Europe into something resembling Alabama on a continent-wide basis. Dennis Bernstein can write an article for Consortium News about the ongoing struggle for abortion rights in 2016 and then turn around in 2018 conduct a softball interview with the late Robert Parry, who founded Consortium News, about The Rush to a New Cold War, which repeats the same talking points you hear continuously there, on Grayzone, WSWS.org, The Nation and elsewhere. Parry tells Bernstein:

The Russians have taken a very different perspective, which is that the United States is encroaching on its borders and threatening them in a strategic manner. They also look at what happened in Ukraine very differently. They see a U.S.-backed coup d’etat in February 2014 that ousted an elected president and put in a regime that is very supportive of free market, neoliberal policies, but also includes very strong right-wing elements, including neo-Nazis and far-right nationalists. A crisis was created and tensions continue to spiral out of control.

A search for “Freedom Party” and Austria on Consortium News returned zero hits.

Perhaps the only explanation for this part of the left’s split personality is its failure to understand world politics from a class perspective. If your unit of analysis is the nation-state and if you somehow think that the Cold War, that had at its roots a conflict between two different modes of production that were as irreconcilable as capitalism and feudalism, has never ended, you can easily end up waking up in the morning writing benign articles or Tweets about the need for solidarity with the Palestinians and closer to midnight writing crap about how Syrians gassed their own families with chlorine as a “false flag”, with blood dripping from your fangs. Is there any hope for such people reintegrating their personalities by reading Marxists? If so, I’d recommend that they start with Leon Trotsky’s 1938 “Learn to Think”:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.



January 9, 2019

The Integrity Initiative controversy (yawn)

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 8:52 pm

On November fifth, a group identifying itself as Anonymous began releasing internal documents it hacked from the Integrity Initiative, a British group that describes itself as follows:

We are a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. Our broader aim is also to educate on how to spot disinformation and verify sources. This kind of work attracts the extremely hostile and aggressive attention of disinformation actors, like the Kremlin and its various proxies, so we hope you understand that our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous.

So we are dealing with Anonymous vs Anonymous apparently. It sort of reminds me of this:

Trying to make sense of the raw documents is a chore and a half but basically they reveal an organized attempt to influence reporters to write anti-Russian propaganda. For example, a selected group of Spanish reporters were urged to expose a military officer as being soft on Putin. The go-to guys, Grayzone’s Katzenjammer Kids Mohamed Elmaazi and Max Blumenthal, told of a campaign to block Army Colonel Pedro Baños from being appointed to Director of Spain’s National Security Department on the “bogus grounds” that he was pro-Kremlin.

Reading this, you would think that it was tantamount to Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers writing a report that described Elizabeth Warren as a “socialist” even though she has openly denied that, instead claiming she was in favor of markets.

What about the good Colonel? El Pais, a newspaper that was part of the Integrity Initiative’s plot, published an article that made a series of interesting observations, starting with his tweet that referred to Putin enjoying a 74% popularity rating, something that inspired this remark: “Wouldn’t we love to have a political leader half as popular right here in the European Union!!!”

Other tweets stated: “The media war, and between the US and Russia, is so intense that it is increasingly difficult to know what’s really going on in the Syria war;” “I agree that Europe cannot draw away from Russia, but must rather be its natural complement;” “Sometimes I find it hard not to believe in conspiracy theories;” and: “As a military official from a country that is part of NATO, I cannot give an opinion. But I do believe that Europe has lost an opportunity with Russia.”

I mean, really, is the charge of being -pro Putin bogus? I suppose that in Grayzone’s eyes it is since the Colonel’s words were so undeniably true. Max Blumenthal would probably go far as to say that the officer was a NATO tool since he wrote that it was “increasingly difficult to know what’s really going on in the Syria war.” Surely, he must have been reading Idrees Ahmad or some other pro-imperialist al-Qaeda operative if he could have written these words since the entire world, at least those that seek peace and national sovereignty, understand that Assad was defending a secular, diverse and economically progressive country from American-backed mercenaries in the same way Fidel Castro defended Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

The essential method of Grayzone and all the other propaganda outlets that have taken up the Integrity Initiative documents (Mint News, Moon of Alabama, RT, Sputnik, et al) is to discount the material on the Integrity Initiative website and the articles published under their prodding, such as the El Pais item, as “fake news” because it is led by British neocons with close ties to the military. Not only does Pedro Baños get a clean bill of health, so do we hear that the Skripal Novichok poisoning was a “false flag” operation.

Why? Because in 2015 it issued a policy paper calling for expelling “every RF [Russian Federation] intelligence officer and air/defense/naval attache from as many countries as possible”. And guess what? In 2018, the same year the Skripals were poisoned, it issued another policy paper with similar goals. Given the obvious Cold War mindset of the Institute, you might have expected such papers to come out not only on a yearly basis but twice a month.

Of course, the only way to make sense of the Skripal affair is to examine the evidence as Bellingcat has done. Here, by contrast, is Max Blumenthal’s version of what happened:

One can gather how much impact Grayzone has versus Bellingcat. According to Alexa, Grayzone is ranked 452,193 globally while Bellingcat is 65,661. Maybe Max should do standup like Jimmy Dore instead of posing as a serious journalist.

Meanwhile, in an effort to show that they are gumshoes equal to Sam Spade, they discovered that the Institute for Statecraft, another neocon outfit funded by the Conservative government in England and parent to the Integrity Initiative, has a different address than the one listed in a Scottish registry of nonprofits. Going to the Scottish address listed there, Mohamed Elmaazi discovered that it was a building in complete disrepair. But the hacked documents revealed the real address, which was in the basement of a “spectacular neo-gothic mansion” in London. When Elmaazi wrangled his way into the building like Michael Moore busting a polluter’s corporate headquarters, they showed him to the door pretty quickly, which led Grayzone to comment: “Elmaazi’s swift ejection from the premises confirmed the lengths that this shadowy organization continues to go to to avoid public scrutiny.”

Really? You don’t have to be quick on the uptake to figure out that this was a military intelligence asset. Just look at their website under “Fellows” and you will see how little attention they pay to concealing their purpose. Martin Edmonds is Senior Associate Fellow for Civil-military Relations. Amalyah Hart is Fellow for Hybrid Warfare in the Indo-Pacific Region. This is a strategic planning think-tank obviously serving as an adjunct to the British military, filled with the kind of academics that get degrees from the British equivalent of Georgetown University, Princeton, et al.

One might say that Mr. Elmaazi shock as its nefarious goings-on was akin to Captain Renault’s surprise that gambling was going on at Rick’s place.

December 30, 2018

Genesis 2.0

Filed under: extinction,Film,indigenous,Russia,science — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

If you knew nothing beforehand about “Genesis 2.0” and sat down after the opening credits had rolled, you’d swear after about 15 minutes that you were watching Warner Herzog’s latest documentary since it incorporates his obsession with obsessional people. In this instance, it is the Yakut hunters who have set out on a hunting trip for dead animals, specifically the tusks of woolly mammoths that have been extinct for around 10,000 years. It would not be far-fetched to call them scavengers rather than hunters.

The Yakuts live in the very north of Siberia. If the word Siberia summons up visions of frigid, desolate and barren tundra, nothing prepares you for the hunting ground they have chosen, the New Siberian Islands to the north of Siberia that would be of little interest to any Russian if it were not the high price paid for the tusks of creatures dead 10,000 years ago and up. Of course, that price is relative since like most indigenous people drawn into the commodity production, they are likely to be the lowest paid.

We learn that woolly mammoth tusks are in high demand because there is now a ban on exporting elephant tusks to China where they are used in carvings purchased by a nouveau riche population that shows little interest in whether a knick-knack on their fireplace mantle might eventually lead to the extinction of the African elephant, the genetic relative of the woolly mammoth as well as the mastodon. In the commodity chain, a Yakut hunter might get a hundred dollars for a tusk that is in relatively good condition. It is then sold in the marketplace in China for up to tens of thousands of dollars to a merchant who then hires artisans to turn it into something looking like this:

This goes for $130,000 at http://mammothtusk.org/

“Genesis 2.0” is narrated by Christian Frei, the Swiss director whose native language is German. If it wasn’t for the offbeat subject, the narrator’s quizzical tone and German accent would convince you that you were listening to Werner Herzog. That being said, Frei is dealing with far more deeply philosophical questions than any I have ever seen in a Herzog film. Since I consider Herzog to be one of the top ten living filmmakers, that’s quite a compliment to Frei whose ambition is to engage with the deepest concerns of the 21st century: what is humanity’s future and what is the future of life in general? Although we do not hear the term “sixth extinction” once in the film, you can’t help but think of it.

Among the men profiled by Frei is Peter Grigoriev, a Yakut who dropped out of college to become a mammoth tusk hunter. His brother Semyon also plays a major role in the documentary even though he is not a hunter. He is a paleontologist and head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic in northern Siberia. His dream is to resurrect a woolly mammoth, a task his brother and his fellow hunters make plausible after they stumble across the nearly complete carcass of a baby woolly mammoth that has been so well-preserved under the frozen tundra that its blood pours liquid from its veins.

Like Indiana Jones coming across the lost ark of the covenant, Semyon feels like his lifelong dream has been realized. With samples in hand, he flies to South Korea to connect with Woo Suk Hwang who runs Sooam Biotech, the largest cloning laboratory in the world and most successful. While Woo is mainly interested in pure science, he pays his bills by cloning the pet dogs of wealthy people who are willing to pay the same money to be reconnected with Fido as those willing to shell out for a mammoth tusk carving. We hear from one customer, a woman with a distinctly nasal Queens accent who says she loved her dog more than anybody, including her husband and her mother. In moments like this, you can also be fooled into thinking you are watching a Werner Herzog since the unintended comedy is funnier than any Will Ferrell movie I’ve ever seen.

This is not Semyon’s last stop. Next, he flies to China to meet with the top management of BGI, a genome sequencing laboratory that has Communist Party members and military officers on its board. They are anxious to register the dead baby woolly mammoth’s genome codes with BGI that is aspiring to encompass every single living thing on earth in its electronic archives. Like Woo, BGI pays for their pure science undertakings by the more menial job of testing fetal samples sent to their labs by parents anxious to preempt having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. When Semyon’s colleague questions the morality of such a business, the BGI executive stares blankly at him with a plastic smile on her face.

Let me conclude with something from the press notes that helps pull together the different strands of this remarkable film that opens on January second at the IFC in New York:

There is a kind of gold rush fever in the air, because the prices for this white gold have never been so high. But the thawing permafrost unveils more than just precious ivory. Sometimes the hunters find an almost completely preserved mammoth carcass with fur, liquid blood and muscle tissue on which arctic foxes gnaw.

Such finds are magnets for high-tech Russian and South Korean clone researchers in search of mammoth cells with the greatest possible degree of intact DNA. Their mission could be part of a science-fiction plot. They want to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life à la “Jurassic Park”, and resurrect it as a species. And that’s just the beginning. Worldwide, biologists are working on re-inventing life. They want to learn the language of nature and create life following the Lego principle. ( The Lego Principle refers to the concept of connecting first to God and then to one another. Regardless of the shape, size, or color of any LEGO brick, each is designed to do just one thing: connect. LEGO pieces are designed to connect at the top with studs and the bottom with tubes. Following this metaphor, if you can connect to the top with God and to the foundation with others, you then have the ability to shape the world you live in.) The goal of synthetic biology is to produce complete artificial biological systems. Man becomes the Creator.

The resurrection of the mammoth is a first track and manifestation of this next great technological revolution. An exercise. A multi-million dollar game. The new technology may well turn the world as we know it completely on its head…and all of this has its origin in the unstoppably thawing permafrost at the extreme edge of Siberia.

Genesis two point zero.


December 28, 2018

Russia Without Putin

Filed under: Counterpunch,Russia — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

For the longest time Vladimir Putin has assumed the role of an Ian Fleming super-villain in the imaginations of both liberal and neoconservative pundits. Like one of those well-worn set pieces in a James Bond novel, he sits opposite our British super-spy in a chess game with the world hegemony awarded to the winning side. Or in the case of a draw, multipolarity.

Any book on Putin and Russia that departs from these stereotypes would be most welcome. When it turns out to be a first-rate Marxist analysis, it should be added to your must-read list for 2019. The good news is that book has arrived in the form of Tony Wood’s Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War, a ground-breaking study that departs from the lurid personality-driven narratives that are the stock-in-trade of MSNBC or the Washington Post. Additionally, for those on the left whose ideas are shaped by Stephen F. Cohen’s pro-Putin apologetics, the book will serve as a wake-up call to return to a class rather than a chess analysis. If Rachel Maddow is for the chess-master playing white, there is no reason to uncritically root for who is playing black. In keeping with the palette analogy, it is worth recalling Lenin’s citation of Mephistopheles’s words from Goethe’s Faust in his 1917 Letter on Tactics: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.”

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