Saturday, November 28, 2009

Товарищ Х: economic crisis = higher suicide rates

Not a surprise, but here it is quantified in an epidemiological study in The Lancet

The public health effect of economic crises and alternative policy responses in Europe: an empirical analysis : The Lancet

Rises in unemployment are associated with significant short-term increases in premature deaths from intentional violence, while reducing traffic fatalities. Active labour market programmes that keep and reintegrate workers in jobs could mitigate some adverse health effects of economic downturns.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The nth wave of Bernsteinism

CPUSA leader falsifies Marx to promote pro-Obama views

A column in the November 7-13 People’s Weekly World, a newspaper reflecting the views of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), highlights the group’s further evolution away from any pretense of building a revolutionary workers party and toward being a radical political association entrenched in U.S. bourgeois politics instead.

Titled “A ragged process,” the column is by Sam Webb, the CPUSA chairman. He writes, “The notion of the capitalist class on the one side and the working class on the other may sound ‘radical,’ but it is neither Marxist, nor found in life and politics.”

Webb hails the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency as “the defeat of right-wing extremism” that has been in power for the past 30 years—a period that would include, by the way, the eight years of the Democratic administration of William Clinton. Webb attributes this defeat of right-wing extremism not just to the “brilliance” of Obama but also to “the broad wings of a people’s coalition.”

This “coalition,” Webb writes, “stretches (for now) from President Obama to the core forces of the people’s movement: labor, African American, Latino, and other racially oppressed people, women, and youth.” It also includes “dissatisfied grassroots supporters of the right wing, sections of the Democratic Party and even corporate capital—depending on the issue at hand.” He gives no examples of what those issues might be.

The CPUSA’s perspective over the next few years, Webb says, is to seek a “new New Deal.” The original New Deal was a package of reforms implemented by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the midst of the 1930s depression to rescue capitalism from collapse and thwart rising labor militancy from organizing independent working-class political action.

“The main elements of the New Deal … were won not in 1933, which was Roosevelt’s first year in office, but in 1935-1937,” Webb states. “I suspect the future will be much the same.”

In the same issue of PWW Paquet Daniel writes a letter to the editor about a discussion with a coworker who said he knew there were communists in the United States because he had seen the Militant. Daniel introduced the worker to the PWW. He says the worker liked the paper because it had a “fair approach of the reality, especially about Afghanistan.”

The front-page of that PWW carried the headline “‘No escalation’ is first step to peace in Afghanistan.” By contrast the Militant has consistently campaigned for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all imperialist forces from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The PWW has announced that it will cease publication of a printed edition beginning January 1.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Umbert Eco on religious inflation

Marxist Update Editor's note: While I disagree with Eco on many issues (especially his idea that "human beings are religious animals") I think he does have something useful to say about the increasing rate of commodity cultural production (books, movies, video games) devoted to pseudo-science and superstition and the grandeurs of sub-rosa "knowledge". In the broadest political context, however, the greatest and most dangerous authors of pseudo and lying "knowledge" are the bi-partisan war party of Washington and Wall Street. Dan Brown is a piker compared with US imperialism as a danger to the world's historical and cultural conquests, and to the immense majority of humanity itself. JR

God isn't big enough for some people

We are now approaching the critical time of the year for shops and supermarkets: the month before Christmas is the four weeks when stores of all kinds sell their products fastest. Father Christmas means one thing to children: presents. He has no connection with the original St Nicholas, who performed a miracle in providing dowries for three poor sisters, thereby enabling them to marry and escape a life of prostitution.

Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.

They insisted that they were describing the universe in rigorously materialistic terms - yet at night they attended seances and tried to summon up the spirits of the dead. Even today, I frequently meet scientists who, outside their own narrow discipline, are superstitious - to such an extent that it sometimes seems to me that to be a rigorous unbeliever today, you have to be a philosopher. Or perhaps a priest.

And we need to justify our lives to ourselves and to other people. Money is an instrument. It is not a value - but we need values as well as instruments, ends as well as means. The great problem faced by human beings is finding a way to accept the fact that each of us will die.

Money can do a lot of things - but it cannot help reconcile you to your own death. It can sometimes help you postpone your own death: a man who can spend a million pounds on personal physicians will usually live longer than someone who cannot. But he can't make himself live much longer than the average life-span of affluent people in the developed world.

And if you believe in money alone, then sooner or later, you discover money's great limitation: it is unable to justify the fact that you are a mortal animal. Indeed, the more you try escape that fact, the more you are forced to realise that your possessions can't make sense of your death.

It is the role of religion to provide that justification. Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death. We in Europe have faced a fading of organised religion in recent years. Faith in the Christian churches has been declining.

The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.

G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

The "death of God", or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church -- from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.

It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God. He said: "No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something greater." Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency. The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret "container" with his or her own fears and hopes.

As a child of the Enlightenment, and a believer in the Enlightenment values of truth, open inquiry, and freedom, I am depressed by that tendency. This is not just because of the association between the occult and fascism and Nazism - although that association was very strong. Himmler and many of Hitler's henchmen were devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies.

The same was true of some of the fascist gurus in Italy - Julius Evola is one example - who continue to fascinate the neo-fascists in my country. And today, if you browse the shelves of any bookshop specialising in the occult, you will find not only the usual tomes on the Templars, Rosicrucians, pseudo-Kabbalists, and of course The Da Vinci Code, but also anti-semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

I was raised as a Catholic, and although I have abandoned the Church, this December, as usual, I will be putting together a Christmas crib for my grandson. We'll construct it together - as my father did with me when I was a boy. I have profound respect for the Christian traditions - which, as rituals for coping with death, still make more sense than their purely commercial alternatives.

I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.

Marxist analysis of education system reform

On his way to a fund-raiser in San Francisco October 15 President Barack Obama squeezed in a few hours to visit New Orleans. He stopped by the Martin Luther King Jr. charter school in the devastated Ninth Ward and gave a five-minute speech.

When he was growing up, Obama told the students, “We weren’t rich. We didn’t have a lot. But the one thing my mother and my grandparents told me was that if I worked hard in school … there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do.”

Obama has plied this and similar themes, especially when his audience is African American, that achieving an education is just a matter of individual initiative—in which social class and national oppression are irrelevant. If your kids get bad grades or don’t graduate it’s because they simply didn’t try hard enough, or you let them watch too much TV.

The book The Working Class and the Transformation of Learning by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, offers useful answers for working people to various schemes for “education reform” by Obama and others, both liberals and conservatives.

Transformation of Learning presents a completely different perspective: that education is a social and class question that can only be resolved as part of the working class mobilizing to carry out a revolution to replace the wealthy families in power today. The title is offered at a 50 percent discount to all those who purchase Militant subscriptions during the paper’s fall circulation drive.

The White House has launched a “Race to the Top” campaign, which promises federal grants for education to those cities that come the closest to meeting the following standards: lifting restrictions on how many schools in a district can be privately run charter schools and using test scores to determine which teachers are kept on and which are fired, an attack on seniority clauses in union contracts.

Charter schools are central to the White House campaign. These schools receive public funding but are managed privately. They determine their own curriculum, set their own work rules for staff, and in most cases are nonunion.

Since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005, New Orleans has become the first major city in the country to have more charter schools than public ones. The government simply never reopened many of the public schools, replacing them with nonunion charter schools instead.

Individual or social issue?
Like education vouchers, the charter school program plays on the frustration of working-class families whose children attend dilapidated schools where many fail to graduate. It tries to get parents to seek an individual solution: how do I get “my child” into a good school where he or she can “get ahead”?

These programs undermine class solidarity and scapegoat the unions for poor schools. They are used to push privatization over government responsibility for basic social needs, part of the overall attack on the social wage that also includes chipping away at Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, all fought for by the working class as social solutions to social problems.

The two national teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, criticize charter schools for the loss of dues-paying members and contracts, but offer no serious challenge to the “private is better” premise. In the absence of a serious fight to defend free, public education—by the teachers unions or any other labor or community groups—many parents resort to charter schools or pay for private schools that are often church-run.

“There is no universal education under capitalism; there is no such thing as education ‘for all’,” Barnes writes in Transformation of Learning. “There is only ‘education’ for the working class, and a completely different kind of ‘education’ for the small propertied minority.”

Capitalists seek obedience
“The purpose of education in class society is not to educate,” Barnes explains. “The purpose of education is to give ‘the educated’ a stake in thinking they are going to be different—slightly better off, slightly more white collar—than other people who work all their lives. In the process, the rulers hope to make those who manage to get a college degree more dependable supporters of the status quo.”

The opposite is the case for workers. “They need for us to be obedient, not to be educated. They need for us to have to work hard to make a living, not to be critical… . Above all, they need for us to lose any desire over time to broaden our scope and become citizens of the world,” Barnes says.

“Until society is reorganized so that education is a human activity from the time we are very young until the time we die, there will be no education worthy of working, creating humanity,” Barnes writes. “There will only be the pretensions to education or to technical expertise of a small group of people.”

As he writes in the introduction, “This pamphlet approaches education … as a social question. As the fight for the transformation of learning into a universal and lifetime activity. It presents education as part of preparing workers and farmers ‘for the greatest of all battles in the years ahead—the battle to throw off the self-image the rulers teach us, and to recognize that we are capable of taking power and organizing society, as we collectively educate ourselves and learn the exploiters in the process.’”

Lenin in Exile

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile
By Helen Rappaport (£20, Hutchinson)

In this brisk, readable account, author Helen Rappaport looks at Lenin's life during his nearly two decades in exile in conditions of great privation and hardship. Always under the threat of state persecution, he struggled to forge a revolutionary socialist party capable of contesting for power in Czarist Russia. In this he was ultimately successfully in October 1917.

Although largely relying on published memoirs, particularly those of Nadya Krupskaya, Lenin's life-long partner and fellow Bolshevik, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile usefully gathers together in one book the details of the life of the great Marxist, up to his arrival at Finland Station in Petrograd, April 1917.

The book is full of reminiscences, incidents, events and even anecdotes, as we follow Lenin's many forced moves around Europe, including to Paris, Geneva, Brussels and London (like Marx before him, Lenin made great use of the British Museum in London).

We are given a detailed picture of how Lenin single-mindedly dedicated his enormous talents to the workers' revolutionary movement. We learn of his prodigious workload and frugal lifestyle, his health problems brought on by poverty, and his great love of long walks and cycling.

After the state execution of his older brother, Aleksandr Ulyanov, for his part in a plot to kill the dictatorial Czar in 1887, the young Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (later to adopt the name Lenin) became involved in the revolutionary underground, choosing the methods of Marxism over terrorism to overthrow capitalism and landlordism.

Some of the best parts of the book examine the huge sacrifices and idealism of the "hundreds of activists", who along with Lenin worked "covertly in Russia's big cities, who had given up the personal life and gone underground... lived hand to mouth... living in safe houses without work permits..." Like scenes from a spy novel, Lenin is described jumping from a moving train, risking life and limb, to protect a suitcase of revolutionary literature from Czarist policemen.

Although forced to flee Russia, Lenin's qualities of "self-discipline, energy and austerity" meant he was soon playing a pivotal role organising the work of the underground, including founding, editing and writing for party newspapers, and corresponding voluminously with fellow revolutionaries (with the aid of Krupskaya's untiring coding and decoding of letters).

Rappaport spends a great deal of time discussing and speculating on Lenin's personal life, for example on his relations with fellow Bolshevik Innesa Armand, and on the possible causes of Lenin's death in 1924. In doing so, Rappaport repeats unproven allegations, some of which she admits in footnotes are "totally unverified claims" and cited from hostile authors on Lenin, including one with a "heavy anti-Russian bias" and "unsavoury" politics.

The book's most serious weaknesses are apparent when Rappaport comments on Lenin's political ideas and struggles, failing to provide a balanced record. Lenin's political fights against other trends in the Russian social democratic and international socialist movement are given one-sided and often hostile treatment. However, these were essential in preparing the way ideologically and organisationally for the development and success of the Bolsheviks.

The Bolshevik leader is castigated by the author for his supposed "violent character assassination", "crude invective" and "messianic prophecy" and for treating the proletariat as "merely an amorphous mass, the collective instrument of the party's elitist will".

There is nothing new in these tired and crude views. Of course, the author is free to disagree with Lenin's politics but any serious and honest study of the history of the Bolsheviks refutes the false notion that Lenin dominated the party by underhand and autocratic methods. The reality is that Lenin was often in a minority in debates in the Bolshevik party. The colossal authority he held amongst the Bolshevik rank and file was due to the force of the logic of his ideas and their successful application to the needs and historical claims of the Russian working class. Indeed, the Bolshevik party is the most democratic and successful party of the working class in its history.

For a proper account of his ideas and methods, look elsewhere, to Lenin's works and also to the publications and websites of the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers' International.

Private ownership's roadblock to science

Written by Mike Palecek

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

We are constantly bombarded with the myth that capitalism drives innovation, technology, and scientific advancement. But in fact, the precise opposite is true. Capitalism is holding back every aspect of human development, and science and technology is no exception.

We are constantly bombarded with the myth that capitalism drives innovation, technology, and scientific advancement. We are told that competition, combined with the profit motive, pushes science to new frontiers and gives big corporations incentive to invent new medicines, drugs, and treatments. The free market, we are told, is the greatest motivator for human advance. But in fact, the precise opposite is true. Patents, profits, and private ownership of the means of production are actually the greatest fetters science has known in recent history. Capitalism is holding back every aspect of human development, and science and technology is no exception.

The most recent and blatant example of private ownership serving as a barrier to advancement can be found in the Ida fossil. Darwinius masillae is a 47 million year old lemur that was recently “discovered”. Anyone and everyone interested in evolution cheered at the unveiling of a transitional species, linking upper primates and lower mammals. Ida has forward-facing eyes, short limbs, and even opposable thumbs. What is even more remarkable is the stunning condition she was preserved in. This fossil is 95% complete. The outline of her fur is clearly visible and scientists have even been able to examine the contents of her stomach, determining that her last meal consisted of fruits, seeds, and leaves. Enthusiasts are flocking to New York’s Museum of Natural History to get a glimpse of the landmark fossil.

So what does Ida have to do with capitalism? Well, she was actually unearthed in 1983 and has been held by a private collector ever since. The collector didn’t realize the significance of the fossil (not surprising since he is not a paleontologist) and so it just collected dust for 25 years.

There is a large international market for fossils. Capitalism has reduced these treasures, which rightly belong to all of humanity, to mere commodities. Privately held fossils are regularly leased to museums so that they may be studied or displayed. Private fossil collections tour the world, where they can make money for their owners, instead of undergoing serious study. And countless rare specimens sit in the warehouses of investment companies, or the living rooms of collectors serving as nothing more than a conversation piece. It is impossible to know how many important fossils are sitting, waiting to be discovered in some millionaire’s office.

Medical Research
The pharmaceutical industry is well known for price gouging and refusing to distribute medicines to those who can’t afford it. The lack of drugs to combat the AIDS pandemic, particularly in Africa, is enough to prove capitalism’s inability to distribute medicine to those in need. But what role does the profit motive play in developing new drugs? The big pharmaceuticals have an equally damning record in the research and development side of their industry.

AIDS patients can pay tens of thousands of dollars per year for the medication they need to keep them alive. In 2003, when a new drug called Fuzeon was introduced, there was an outcry over the cost, which would hit patients with a bill of over $20,000 per year. Roche's chairman and chief executive, Franz Humer tried to justify the price tag, “We need to make a decent rate of return on our innovations. This is a major breakthrough therapy… I can't imagine a society that doesn't want that innovation to continue.”

But the innovation that Mr. Humer speaks of is only half-hearted. Drug companies are not motivated by compassion; they are motivated by cash. To a drug company, a person with AIDS is not a patient, but a customer. The pharmaceutical industry has a financial incentive to make sure that these people are repeat-customers, consequently there is very little research being done to find a cure. Most research done by the private sector is centered on finding new anti-retroviral drugs - drugs that patients will have to continue taking for a lifetime.

There has been a push to fund research for an AIDS vaccine and, more recently, an effective microbicide. However, the vast majority of this funding comes from government and non-profit groups. The pharmaceutical industry simply isn’t funding the research to tackle this pandemic. And why would they? No company on earth would fund research that is specifically designed to put them out of business.

Similar problems arise in other areas of medical research. In the cancer field an extremely promising drug was discovered in early 2007. Researchers at the University of Alberta discovered that a simple molecule DCA can reactivate mitochondria in cancer cells, allowing them to die like normal cells. DCA was found to be extremely effective against many forms of cancer in the laboratory and shows promise for being an actual cure for cancer. DCA has been used for decades to treat people with mitochondria disorders. Its effects on the human body are therefore well known, making the development process much simpler.

But clinical trials of DCA have been slowed by funding issues. DCA is not patented or patentable. Drug companies will not have the ability to make massive profits off the production of this drug, so they are not interested. Researchers have been forced to raise money themselves to fund their important work. Initial trials, on a small scale, are now under way and the preliminary results are very encouraging. But it has been two years since this breakthrough was made and serious study is only just getting underway. The U of A’s faculty of medicine has been forced to beg for money from government and non-profit organizations. To date, they have not received a single cent from a for-profit medical organization.

The lack of research into potential non-patentable cures does not stop at DCA. There is an entire industry built up around so-called alternative natural remedies. Many people, this author included, are skeptical about the claims made by those that support alternative medicines. Richard Dawkins is quick to point out that “If a healing technique is demonstrated to have curative properties in properly controlled double-blind trials, it ceases to be alternative. It simply...becomes medicine.” But this black and white view does not take into account the limitations placed on science by capitalism. The refusal to fund the testing needed to verify non-patentable alternative medicines has two damaging effects. First, we are kept in the dark about potentially effective medications. And second, the modern-day snake oil salesmen that peddle false cures are given credibility by the few alternative treatments that do work.

Technology and Industry
The manufacturing industry in particular is supposed to be where capitalist innovation is in its element. We are told that competition between companies will lead to better products, lower prices, new technology and new innovation. But again, upon closer inspection we see private interests serving as more of a barrier than an enabler. Patents and trade secrets prevent new technologies from being developed. The oil industry in particular has a long history of purchasing patents, simply to prevent the products from ever coming to market.

Competition can serve as a motivator for the development of new products. But as we have already seen above, it can also serve as a motivator to prevent new products from ever seeing the light of day. Companies will not only refuse to fund research for the development of a product that might hurt their industry, but in some cases they will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent anyone else from doing the same research.

The 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car" goes into great detail about the role of big oil companies, auto manufacturers, and the US Federal Government in preventing an alternative vehicle from hitting the road. The filmmaker claims that auto companies would lose out if an electric vehicle was ever produced because of the simplicity of their maintenance. The replacement parts side of the auto industry would be decimated. Oil companies would see a dramatic reduction in the demand for their products as the world switched to electric vehicles. It is claimed that hydrogen fuel cells, which have very little chance of being developed into a useful technology, are used as a distraction from real alternatives. The film maker blasts the American government for directing research away from electric vehicles and towards hydrogen fuel cells.

But the most damning accusations are against major oil companies and auto manufacturers. The film suggests that auto companies have sabotaged their own research into electric cars. What’s worse, is that oil companies have purchased the patents for NiMH batteries to prevent them from being used in electric vehicles. These are the same batteries that are used in laptop computers and large batteries of this type would make the electric vehicle possible. But Chevron maintains veto power over any licensing or use of NiMH battery technology. They continue to refuse to sell these batteries for research purposes. Some hybrid vehicles are now using NiMH batteries, but hybrid vehicles, while improving mileage, still rely on fossil fuels.

While the purchasing of patents is an effective way of shelving new innovations, there are certainly other ways the capitalist system holds back research and development. The very nature of a system based on competition makes collaborative research impossible. Whether it be the pharmaceutical industry, the auto industry or any other, capitalism divides the best engineers and scientists among competing corporations. Anyone involved in research or product development is forced to sign a confidentiality agreement as a condition of employment. Not only are these people prevented from working together, they are not even allowed to compare their notes!

Peer review is supposed to be an important piece of the scientific method. Often, major advancements are made, not by an individual group researchers, but by many groups of researchers. One team develops one piece of the puzzle, someone else discovers another and still another team of scientists puts all of the pieces together. How can a system based on competition foster such collaborative efforts? Simply stated, it can’t.

The governments of the world clearly recognize this as a problem; every time they are met with a serious crisis, they throw their free-market ideals out the window and turn to the public sector. It has been argued many times that World War Two was won by nationalization and planning. Capitalism in Britain was essentially put on hold, so that the war effort could be effectively organized. In the United States, such large scale nationalization did not take place, but when it came to research and development, the private sector was not trusted to handle it on their own.

Fearing that the Nazis were developing the atomic bomb, the US government initiated a massive public program to ensure they were the first to wield a weapon of mass destruction. The Manhattan project succeeded where private industry could not. At one point, over 130,000 people were working on the project. The world’s best and brightest were brought together into a massive collaborative undertaking. They discovered more about nuclear fission in the span of a few years, than they had in the decades since the first atom was split in 1919. Regardless of what one thinks of the atom bomb, this was doubtlessly one of the greatest scientific advancements of the 20th century.

Science, technology and economic planning
The ultimate proof of capitalism’s hindrance of science and technology comes not from capitalism, but from the alternative. While the Soviet Union under Stalin was far from the ideal socialist society (something which we have explained extensively elsewhere), its history gives us valuable insight into the potential of a nationalized planned economy. In 1917 the Bolsheviks took control of a backwards, semi-feudal, third world country that had been ruined by the First World War. In a matter of decades, it was transformed into a leading super-power. The USSR would go on to be the first to put a satellite into orbit, the first to put a man in space, and the first to build a permanently manned outpost in space. Soviet scientists pushed the frontiers of knowledge, particularly in the areas of Mathematics, Astronomy, Nuclear Physics, Space Exploration and Chemistry. Many Soviet era scientists have been awarded Nobel prizes in various fields. These successes are particularly stunning, when one considers the state the country was in when capitalism was overthrown.

How were such advancements possible? How did the Soviet Union go from having a population that was 90% illiterate, to having more scientists, doctors and engineers per capita than any other country on Earth in just a few decades? The superiority of the nationalized planned economy and the break from the madness of capitalism is the only explanation.

The first step in this process was simply the recognition that science was a priority. Under capitalism, the ability of private companies to develop science and technology is limited by a narrow view of what is profitable. Companies do not plan to advance technology, they plan to build a marketable product and will only do what is necessary to bring that product to market. The Soviets immediately recognized the importance of the overall development of science and technology and linked it to the development of the country as a whole. This broad view allowed them to put substantial resources into all areas of study.

Another vital component of their success was the massive expansion of education. By abolishing private schools and providing free education at all levels, individuals in the population were able to meet their potential. A citizen could continue their studies as long as they were capable. By contrast, even many advanced capitalist countries have been unable to eliminate illiteracy today, let alone open up university education to all who are able. Under capitalism, massive financial barriers are placed in front of students, which prevent large portions of the population from reaching their potential. When half of the world’s population is forced to live on less than two dollars a day, we can only conclude that massive reserves of human talent are being wasted.

The soviet government immediately tore down all the barriers on science that strangle innovation within the capitalist system. Patents, trade secrets, and private industry were eliminated. This allowed for more collaborative research across fields and a free flow of information between institutions. Religious prejudices that had long held back rational study were pushed aside. One only has to look at the ban on stem-cell research under the Bush regime to see the negative effects religious bigotry can have on science.

But it wasn’t all good news under Stalinism. Just as the bureaucracy hindered the development of the economy, it also hindered certain areas of study. While the many barriers of capitalism were broken down, in some cases new ones were erected as the direction of scientific study was subjugated to the needs and desires of the bureaucracy. In the most extreme cases, certain fields of study were outlawed entirely and leading scientists were arrested and sent to labour camps in Siberia. One of the most outrageous cases was Stalin’s contempt for chromosomal genetics. The study of genetics was banned and several prominent geneticists, including Agol, Levit and Nadson were executed. Nikolai Vavilov, one of the Soviet Union’s great geneticists was sent to a labour camp, where he died in 1943. This ban wasn’t overturned until the mid 1960s. These crimes were not crimes of socialism, but of Stalinism. Under a democratically planned economy, there would be no reason for such atrocities.

Today, it is the task of those interested in science and socialism to learn the lessons of history. Science is being held back by private interests and industry. A lack of resources for education and research keep doors closed to young aspiring minds. Religious interference locks science in a cage and declares important fields of study off-limits. The chains of the free-market prevent meaningful research from being done. Private companies refuse to let new technologies out of their back rooms. Private collectors hold unique and important specimens for their own personal amusement. Potential cures for deadly diseases are tossed aside to clear the way for research into the latest drug to cure erectile dysfunction. This is madness. Capitalism does not drive innovation, but hinders it at every step.

Humanity today is being held back by an economic system designed to enslave the majority for the benefit of a minority. Every aspect of human development is hindered by the erroneously-named free-market. With the development of computers, the internet and new technologies, humanity stands at the doorstep of a bright future of scientific advancement and prosperity. We are learning more and more about every aspect of our existence. What was once impossible, is now tangible. What was once a mystery, is now understood. What was once veiled, is now in plain sight. The advancement of scientific knowledge will one day put even the farthest reaches of the universe at our fingertips. The only thing that stands in our way is capitalism.

U.S. imperialist reality explained

Why U.S. occupation cannot transform Afghanistan or Iraq

By Sara Flounders
Published Nov 15, 2009 5:39 PM

Just how powerful is the U.S. military today?

Why is the largest military machine on the planet unable to defeat the resistance in Afghanistan, in a war that has lasted longer than World War II or Vietnam?

Afghanistan ranks among the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world today. It has one of the shortest life expectancy rates, highest infant mortality rates and lowest rates of literacy.

The total U.S. military budget has more than doubled from the beginning of this war in 2001 to the $680 billion budget signed by President Barack Obama Oct. 28. The U.S. military budget today is larger than the military budgets of the rest of the world combined. The U.S. arsenal has the most advanced high-tech weapons.

The funds and troop commitment to Afghanistan have grown with every year of occupation. Last January another 20,000 troops were sent; now there is intense pressure on President Obama to add an additional 40,000 troops. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. More than three times as many forces are currently in Afghanistan when NATO forces and military contractors are counted.

Eight years ago, after an initial massive air bombardment and a quick, brutal invasion, every voice in the media was effusive with assurances that Afghanistan would be quickly transformed and modernized, and the women of Afghanistan liberated. There were assurances of schools, roads, potable water, health care, thriving industry and Western-style “democracy.” A new Marshall Plan was in store.

Was it only due to racist and callous disregard that none of this happened?

In Iraq, how could conditions be worse than during the 13 years of starvation sanctions the U.S. imposed after the 1991 war? Today more than a third of the population has died, is disabled, internally displaced and/or refugees. Fear, violence against women and sectarian divisions have shredded the fabric of society.

Previously a broad current in Pakistan looked to the West for development funds and modernization. Now they are embittered and outraged at U.S. arrogance after whole provinces were forcibly evacuated and bombarded in the hunt for Al Qaeda.

U.S. occupation forces are actually incapable of carrying out a modernization program. They are capable only of massive destruction, daily insults and atrocities. That is why the U.S. is unable to win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan or Iraq. That is what fuels the resistance.

Today every effort meant to demonstrate the power and strength of U.S. imperialism instead confirms its growing weakness and its systemic inability to be a force for human progress on any level.

Collaborators and warlords

Part of U.S. imperialism’s problem is that its occupation forces are required to rely on the most corrupt, venal and discredited warlords. The only interest these competing military thugs have is in pocketing funds for reconstruction and development. Entire government ministries, their payrolls and their projects have been found to be total fiction. Billions allocated for schools, water and road construction have gone directly into the warlords’ pockets. Hundreds of news articles, congressional inquiries and U.N. reports have exposed just how all-pervasive corruption is.

In Iraq the U.S. occupation depends on the same type of corrupt collaborators. For example, a BBC investigation reported that $23 billion had been lost, stolen or “not properly accounted for” in Iraq. A U.S. gag order prevented discussion of the allegations. (June 10, 2008)

Part of the BBC search for the missing billions focused on Hazem Shalaan, who lived in London until he was appointed minister of defense in 2004. He and his associates siphoned an estimated $1.2 billion out of the Iraqi defense ministry.

But the deeper and more intractable problem is not the local corrupt collaborators. It is the very structure of the Pentagon and the U.S. government. It is a problem that Stanley McChrystal, the commanding general in Afghanistan, or President Obama cannot change or solve.

It is the problem of an imperialist military built solely to serve the profit system.

Contractor industrial complex

All U.S. aid, both military and what is labeled “civilian,” is funneled through thousands and thousands of contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors. None of these U.S. corporate middlemen are even slightly interested in the development of Afghanistan or Iraq. Their only immediate aim is to turn a hefty superprofit as quickly as possible, with as much skim and double billing as possible. For a fee they will provide everything from hired guns, such as Blackwater mercenaries, to food service workers, mechanics, maintenance workers and long-distance truck drivers.

These hired hands also do jobs not connected to servicing the occupation. All reconstruction and infrastructure projects of water purification, sewage treatment, electrical generation, health clinics and road clearance are parceled out piecemeal. Whether these projects ever open or function properly is of little interest or concern. Billing is all that counts.

In past wars, most of these jobs were carried out by the U.S. military. The ratio of contractors to active-duty troops is now more than 1-to-1 in both Iraq and Afghanistan. During the Vietnam War it was 1-to-6.

In 2007 the Associated Press put the number in Iraq alone at 180,000: “The United States has assembled an imposing industrial army in Iraq that’s larger than its uniformed fighting force and is responsible for such a broad swath of responsibilities that the military might not be able to operate without its private-sector partners.” (Sept. 20, 2007)

The total was 190,000 by August 2008. (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 18, 2008)

Some corporations have become synonymous with war profiteering, such as Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater in Iraq, and Louis Berger Group, BearingPoint and DynCorp International in Afghanistan.

Every part of the U.S. occupation has been contracted out at the highest rate of profit, with no coordination, no oversight, almost no public bids. Few of the desperately needed supplies reach the dislocated population traumatized by the occupation.

There are now so many pigs at the trough that U.S. forces are no longer able to carry out the broader policy objectives of the U.S. ruling class. The U.S military has even lost count, by tens of thousands, of the numbers of contractors, where they are or what they are doing—except being paid.

Losing count of the mercenaries

The danger of an empire becoming dependent on mercenary forces to fight unpopular wars has been understood since the days of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.

A bipartisan Congressional Commission on Wartime Contracting was created last year to examine government contracting for reconstruction, logistics and security operations and to recommend reforms. However, Michael Thibault, co-chair of the commission, explained at a Nov. 2 hearing that “there is no single source for a clear, complete and accurate picture of contractor numbers, locations, contracts and cost.” (AFP, Nov. 2)

“[Thibault said] the Pentagon in April counted about 160,000 contractors mainly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, but Central Command recorded more than 242,000 contractors a month earlier.” The stunning difference of 82,000 contractors was based on very different counts in Afghanistan. The difference alone is far greater than the 60,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Thibault continued: “How can contractors be properly managed if we aren’t sure how many there are, where they are and what are they doing?” The lack of an accurate count “invites waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money and undermines the achievement of U.S. mission objectives.” The Nov. 2 Federal Times reported that Tibault also asked: “How can we assure taxpayers that they aren’t paying for ‘ghost’ employees?”

This has become an unsolvable contradiction in imperialist wars for profit, markets and imperialist domination. Bourgeois academics, think tanks and policy analysts are becoming increasingly concerned.

Thomas Friedman, syndicated columnist and multimillionaire who is deeply committed to the long-term interests of U.S. imperialism, describes the dangers of a “contractor-industrial-complex in Washington that has an economic interest in foreign expeditions.” (New York Times, Nov. 3)

Outsourcing war

Friedman hastens to explain that he is not against outsourcing. His concern is the pattern of outsourcing key tasks, with money and instructions changing hands multiple times in a foreign country. That only invites abuse and corruption. Friedman quoted Allison Stanger, author of “One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy,” who told him: “Contractors provide security for key personnel and sites, including our embassies; feed, clothe and house our troops; train army and police units; and even oversee other contractors. Without a multinational contractor force to fill the gap, we would need a draft to execute these twin interventions.”

That is the real reason for the contracted military forces. The Pentagon does not have enough soldiers, and they don’t have enough collaborators or “allies” to fight their wars.

According to the Congressional Research Service, contractors in 2009 account for 48 percent of the Department of Defense workforce in Iraq and 57 percent in Afghanistan. Thousands of other contractors work for corporate-funded “charities” and numerous government agencies. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development make even more extensive use of them; 80 percent of the State Department budget is for contractors and grants.

Contractors are supposedly not combat troops, although almost 1,800 U.S. contractors have been killed since 9/11. (U.S. News & World Report, Oct. 30) Of course there are no records on the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis killed working for U.S. corporate contractors, or the many thousands of peoples from other oppressed nations who are shipped in to handle the most dangerous jobs.

Contracting is a way of hiding not only the casualties, but also the actual size of the U.S. occupation force. Fearful of domestic opposition, the government intentionally lists the figures for the total number of forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as far less than the real numbers.

A system run on cost overruns

Cost overruns and war profiteering are hardly limited to Iraq, Afghanistan or active theaters of war. They are the very fabric of the U.S. war machine and the underpinning of the U.S. economy.

When President Obama signed the largest military budget in history Oct. 28 he stated: “The Government Accountability Office, the GAO, has looked into 96 major defense projects from the last year, and found cost overruns that totaled $296 billion.” This was on a total 2009 military budget of $651 billion. So almost half of the billions of dollars handed over to military corporations are cost overruns!

This is at a time when millions of workers face long-term systemic unemployment and massive foreclosures.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have now cost more than $1 trillion. The feeble health care reform bill that squeaked through the House, and might not survive Senate revisions next year, is scheduled to cost $1.1 trillion over a 10-year period.

The bloated, increasingly dysfunctional, for-profit U.S. military machine is unable to solve the problems or rebuild the infrastructure in Afghanistan or Iraq, and it is unable to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure in the U.S. It is unable to meet the needs of people anywhere.

It is absorbing the greatest share of the planet’s resources and a majority of the U.S. national budget. This unsustainable combination will sooner or later give rise to new resistance here and around the world.

Articles copyright 1995-2009 Workers World. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.

Marxism and language

Lukács on Wittgenstein

Without committing ourselves to a detailed analysis of this new brand of irrationalism [semantics], let us attempt briefly to illustrate this orientation's general philosophical character. Wittgenstein, one of its leading figures, offers a number of statements which are central to its methodology. He wrote: 'Sentences can represent the whole reality, but they cannot represent what must be meant in them by reality for this representation to become possible—the logical form . . . Sentences cannot represent the logical form, the form is reflected in the sentences. Language cannot represent that which reflects itself in language. We cannot express through language that which expresses itself through language. Sentences show the logical form of reality. They exhibit it . . . That which one can show, one cannot utter.'

Here, perhaps I may remind the reader of my studies of the phenomenological method, especially Max Scheler's discussion of it, in order to give due weight both to the (socially determined) unity of the various modern irrationalist trends and to the (likewise socially determined) variety of their stages. Scheler resorted as much as Wittgenstein to this immediate irrationalist foundation as the sole bedrock, the sole content of philosophy. There was, to be sure, the difference that he regarded this irrationalist content as still utterable; only at the existentialist stage of phenomenology did the irrationalism of the foundation manifest itself quite clearly. In stressing this parallel we by no means wish to claim that existentialism influenced Wittgenstein; such methodological issues have a social basis, and both the shared and the unlike elements of the method and conclusions reflect this basis. The same applies to the relation between Wittgenstein and the later existentialist development of phenomenology and semantics as to the epistemological affinity between Mach and Husserl, to which we referred in the appropriate place. (Certainly Scheler's Obnmacht der Vernunft, 'The impotence of reason', may also be mentioned in this context.)

Wittgenstein was therefore forced to draw the consequences of this situation. He said of the relation of science (the science of semantics) to life: 'We feel that even if we have answered all the questions of science, we did not so much as touch the problems of life. For then, to be sure, not a single question will remain, and just this is the answer. We perceive the solution to the life problem in the problem's disappearance. (Is not that the reason why men to whom life's meaning became evident are incapable of saying out loud of what this meaning consists?) That is truly the ineffable. It reveals itself; it is the mystical.'

It is no accident that a burning admirer of Wittgenstein, José Ferrater Mora, extols him precisely as a philosopher of despair. He comments on the general characteristics of the age and its representative thinker as follows:

Heidegger, Sartre, Kafka and Camus let us go on living with confidence in a world's existence. However awesome the break they proclaim, it is not a radical one. The ground where they find their footing holds firm. The shattering earthquake reduces our old dwellings to ruins, but even among the ruins one can go on living and can build new houses. But Wittgenstein, after these sad losses, leaves us wholly bereft of support. For if the ground disappears along with the ruins, the roots along with the felled tree, we shall no longer have any support. No longer, too, will we be able to resort to nothingness or face the absurd with minds that are clear. We will have to disappear altogether.

Mora also recognizes that with Wittgenstein, as with semantics in general, the chief culprit is reason and thinking: 'Thinking is the great disruptive influence, we could almost say the great temptation. The misdeed itself, the act of thinking becomes man's great guilt, his essential sin.' In the world described by Wittgenstein, the centre is 'undiluted absurdity'; in it the question has 'put itself in question'. And Chase confirms this world‑view and its semantic analysis by drawing such radical conclusions that the exposition lapses into the grotesquely amusing. He envies his tomcat Hoby who 'is not subject to the hallucinations caused by wrong word‑usage . . . since he has no truck with philosophy and formal logic . . . When I go astray in the language jungle I revert to Hoby's outlook as though to a magnet.'

SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. The Destruction of Reason, translated by Peter Palmer (London: The Merlin Press, 1980), pp. 782-784.

Simon Sebag Montefiore's school of received wisdom

Rehabilitating Stalin?

Review by Peter Taaffe of Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

"Lenin shot by Trotsky in drunken brawl". This was a headline, not from the gutter press but from a so-called 'quality' US capitalist newspaper in the immediate period after the 1917 October Revolution.

In the past there was a counterweight to the possessing classes' frenzy over the Russian Revolution. E.H. Carr, for instance, tried to be objective about the Russian Revolution. But following the collapse of Stalinism in 1989, a 'galaxy' of crude, capitalist 'historians' have had a field day.

Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin is the latest and undoubtedly one of the worst of its kind. Montefiore claims that "massive research and astonishing new evidence in archives from Moscow to Georgia cast an entirely different light on Stalin's role". And yet, the only thing that is 'startling' about this book is that there is very little new evidence but a lot of old falsehoods about Stalin.

Trotsky, in his masterful unfinished Stalin, explains clearly the details of Stalin's early life in a much clearer fashion. Montefiore seeks to counter this. He writes: "We have relied on Trotsky's unrecognisably prejudiced portrait for too long. The truth was different."

His task is twofold. To rehabilitate Stalin as a leading Bolshevik, "second only to Lenin", to enhance his qualities of "courage" and political farsightedness. On the other hand, to link Stalin's "gangsterism" to Lenin and genuine Marxism. He claims Stalin loved "pub crawls", was sexually licentious and, most ludicrously, suggests he was a more "convincing" orator than Trotsky.

He is, at least, egalitarian in dispensing the insults. Lenin was a "nobleman" - because his family partly came from the nobility in the past. Entirely unmentioned, of course, is the fact that the same "noble" Lenin had broken from his relatively privileged existence - as had Marx, Engels and Trotsky, as well as Rosa Luxemburg - and placed himself not just ideologically but also in his lifestyle on the conditions of the working class. No matter; Lenin was "bug-eyed" and a "bespectacled loon".

Trotsky, in his biography of Stalin, wrote: "I do not think that in all of human history anything could be found even remotely resembling the gigantic factory of lies which was organised by the Kremlin under the leadership of Stalin. And one of the principal purposes of this factory is to manufacture a new biography of Stalin... Some of these sources were fabricated by Stalin himself."

Stalin pressurised Abel Yanukidze in 1935 to re-write history, asserting that Stalin played a leading role in the Caucasus and particularly in Baku, where he allegedly founded the first Marxist organisation. But this organisation had been set up eight years before Stalin appeared on the scene. Ironically, Montefiore continues Stalin's falsifications in this book by repeating the tales of his early life.

The author also peppers his account of the young Stalin's development with highly personalised pseudo-psychoanalytical comments. He ascribes to Stalin in the manner of 'original sin', qualities in his early life that would inevitably turn him into what Bukharin later called a "Genghis Khan".

Montefiore's claim is to present Stalin's personal qualities as typical of Marxists at the time and since.

Yet the human personality has good and bad sides. Given the barbarism of capitalist society, there are - as the recent situation in the Balkans has demonstrated - under unfavourable historical circumstances those who may have the traits of a potential Hitler or a Stalin.

This does not mean to say they could become a Hitler or a Stalin in all situations. Stalin was not preordained to play the role that he did later. But his qualities, or lack of them, which existed when he first entered the revolutionary movement, did emerge when history took an unfortunate turn in the isolation of the Russian Revolution.

A Marxist, particularly a leader, requires special qualities of willpower and the determination to struggle against great odds; and a broad perspective. Stalin possessed the former in abundance. However, he lacked what others like Trotsky, Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks possessed, a broad understanding of perspectives, strategy and tactics.

Secondary figure
Trotsky explained the positive role that Stalin played: his tenacity in the teeth of difficulties when others wavered or capitulated. For instance, he was the most insistent that Lenin, correctly, should go underground after the 'July Days' of 1917, because he would have been murdered. However, on all the major political and theoretical questions in the workers' movement, he was on the wrong side.

Montefiore ludicrously tries to emphasise his "crucial" role in the Russian revolution. However, he was attacked by Lenin, as was Kamenev, in the February revolution, for supporting a 'popular front' government at the time, a coalition of 'socialists' with the capitalists. He was, according to Sukhanov who was a Menshevik not a Bolshevik, a "grey blur" in the Russian Revolution.

Notwithstanding the weight of independent evidence to the contrary, Montefiore writes: "Historians habitually follow Trotsky's (totally prejudiced but superbly written) version of events in asserting that Stalin 'missed the revolution', but this does not stand up to scrutiny."

He mentions that Stalin was elected to the Military-Revolutionary Centre by the Bolshevik Central Committee before the October Revolution, which subsequently played no role in the revolution. However, he goes on to correctly point out: "Trotsky and Sverdlov held the first organisational meeting of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (MRC): it... had the advantage of operating under the aegis of the Soviet. This, not Stalin's centre, would be the uprising's headquarters: he was not a member."

So what 'crucial' role did Stalin play in what Marxists defend as the greatest single event in human history? He was a "grey blur". In the actual uprising and, generally, in great events involving the masses, Stalin was absent or quiescent.

Lenin to Stalin
The real purpose of Montefiore is spelt out in a footnote: "It is still widely believed that Stalinism was a distortion of Leninism. But this is contradicted by the fact that in the months after October they were inseparable... Stalinism was not a distortion but a development of Leninism."

It is not "widely believed" today that Stalinism departed from the ideas of Lenin; on the contrary, Montefiore has joined others in trying to prove that Leninism and Stalinism were synonymous.

And what is the 'evidence' for this? That Lenin, like Stalin, used force - described as "frenzied bloodletting" - to defeat the dispossessed landlords and capitalists during the Russian Civil War. So did Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentary forces against the Royalists in the English Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln and the North against the slave owners in the South during the American Civil War.

The "violence" of Lenin and the Russian workers' state was deployed against the undemocratic forces trying to cancel out the democratic will of the working class and the peasants of Russia.

River of blood
In Stalin's 1930s purge trials, it was Lenin's own party, the remnants of the Bolshevik party, which was slaughtered. Between Leninism - the ideas that led to the greatest and most democratic revolution in history - and Stalinism is a river of blood. Trotsky comments: "Stalin took possession of power, not with the aid of personal qualities, but with the aid of an impersonal machine. And it was not he who created the machine, but the machine that created him."

In other words, Stalin before the revolution was at best a secondary figure. Only after the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the gradual rise of a privileged bureaucratic elite did Stalin, with the authority of a 'revolutionary', represent this bureaucracy and personalise its rise.

Although based upon a planned economy, it was compelled to annihilate the remnants of the most democratic and heroic revolutionary party in history, the Bolsheviks. The bureaucracy feared that in a political revolution the masses would turn towards those figures connected with the heroic period of the revolution.

An understanding of how this process created Stalin and the socio-political phenomena of Stalinism - a one-party totalitarian regime resting on a planned economy - is beyond this author. Rather than just read this book, with its malicious falsehoods, it would be much more rewarding in this year, the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, to go to the works of Lenin and Trotsky to understand this great event.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Slavoj Zizek: another revision

In our final column Jonathan Maunder looks at the ideas and limitations of Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek sparks the interest of people in a way that few other academic theorists today do.

From speaking to packed meeting halls across the world, to being interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, to starring in films about his ideas, he may be the closest thing we have to a radical public intellectual.

The interest in Zizek is partly due to his remarkable ability to mix psychoanalysis, Marxism, jokes and references to pop culture to explore serious contemporary issues.

Yet for many people the attraction also comes from his uncompromising and inventive critiques of capitalism and his challenge to fashionable liberal and postmodern academic ideas.

Take, for example, the religious conservatism that influences a significant number of working class people in the US. Liberals would say these are purely irrational beliefs resulting from being uncultured, or perhaps lazy.

Postmodernists argue that all beliefs are specific discourses that no objective criteria can judge as “right” or “wrong”.

By contrast, Zizek argues that these beliefs express real concerns arising from hardship and insecurity. He sees them as a displaced form of class consciousness where people focus on religion rather than the real cause of their problems – the capitalist system.

Zizek uses psychoanalytic ideas to explain the absence of a revolutionary consciousness among workers while avoiding the “class is dead” thesis of liberals and postmodernists.

For Zizek, class struggle reflects the fact that social reality is not a coherent whole. This idea reflects the influence that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has had on his ideas.

Lacan argues that a symbolic structuring of the unconscious constitutes human existence. This structuring helps to hold society together by forming a symbolic “reality” but it is inherently unstable and incomplete.

For Lacan, there are points where the unconscious exceeds the limits of symbolisation – this represents “the real”.

For Zizek, class struggle in capitalism is similar to that of “the real” in symbolic “reality”. But this rather nebulous conception means that class struggle tends to become a label attached to any kind of dysfunction or resistance.

So in one recent article Zizek suggested a number of key “antagonisms” which anti-capitalists should focus on – the ecological catastrophe, intellectual property rights, biogenetics and “new forms of social apartheid”.

He argues that “the excluded”, primarily in the mega-slums of the Global South, make up the new revolutionary subject.

The problem here is not the issues or groups that Zizek highlights, but the fact that he neglects the working class – the class that capital relies upon to reproduce itself.

This means that a key question remains unanswered – which social force has the interest and ability to resolve the contradictions and issues that Zizek talks about?

Zizek’s interest in social antagonism as expression of the real perhaps explains his interest in Lenin. He presents Lenin as an embodiment of this antagonism, a revolutionary strategist and tactician par excellence for whom “society is a field of merciless struggle for power”.

This conception risks reducing Leninism to pure power struggle detached from the real working class – which Lenin saw as the active subject of the struggle. This means that although Zizek sees a difference between Leninism and Stalinism, he is not always clear on the nature of this difference.

Zizek has argued that the forced collectivisation of late 1920s Russia was a continuation of the 1917 revolution, rather than a radical break with the revolution and a turn towards state capitalism.

For Lenin, revolutionary strategy was not an end in itself but the means by which the working class could grow in confidence and fight for its interests. It required close attention to building a revolutionary party among workers.

For Marxist theory to be a useful tool to help change the world it has to be in a constant process of interaction with real workers’ struggles, so that theory and practice can inform and enrich each other.

The only way to do this on a consistent basis is through a revolutionary party. At a time when we desperately need an alternative to capitalism, radical theory still needs to meet Karl Marx’s challenge: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world – the point, however, is to change it.”

Satire from Товарищ Х

My Imaginary Friends – The Pilgrim Fathers

The Original Party Animals
They turned us on to that whole Thanksgiving thing you know. But they started partying back on the boat. Actually their landing, way north of the bit of Virginia coast they were aiming for, may very well stand as the first alcohol-related boating accident on this continent. Writing a couple of years later they explained how they came to be unable to point the boat south and complete the trip, "We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.” So there you have it-- they had one grand kegger, drank up all the beer, landed on the wrong bit of beach, and were too pissed to turn the damned boat around.

Some historians maintain that with such behavior they were perhaps overcompensating for their backed up social life in the old country where the cool Anglican kids used to laugh and point at them. However, since there were 102 of this crowd on the boat, and only 35 of them were of that, self styled, “godly” persuasion that the Anglicans and the “non-Separating Puritans” found so amusing, that analysis seems a bit weak. The more general plan was that 30 or so of this bunch, the serious drinkers and layabouts, were to turn a tidy profit off the work of the rest of them, religion being only a side issue.

Despite the colder than expected climate, Plymouth being tad more chilly than Virginia in December, and their ignorance of farming methods suited to it, my virtual pals were still convinced that they had lucked-up on something good. Particularly as the former residents of Pawtuxet had been nearly wiped out by a plague (brought by another wave of Boat People 4 years earlier). John Winthrop, one of the layabouts, described it in these terms “miraculous…. But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place...” Clearly the Nonexistent was showing favor for the “godly” by wiping out their competition and by extension, some maintained. granting John and the boys license to rob, displace and murder those who remained. And so they continued to think as things got worse. Well... perhaps not so much by the time of the “First Thanksgiving” when all but 53 of their number were dead and in the ground.

The First Thanksgiving
The one proper English item on the table was beer, brewed from the barley which was the only crop they managed to bring in. The rest was contributed by their Wampanoag “guests,” wild duck, goose and turkey and Bambi pies with corn meal crust. With enough beers they, the itinerant “godly,” probably did not even care that bubble 'n' squeak was off their menu. Anyroad, this feast was high living compared to the slim pickings got by robbing they Wampanoags' Pawtuxet graves shortly after they first landed.

One of the under-reported pressures on the “godly” is reflected in the sermon, delivered in 1621 by Robert Cushman, “The Sin and Danger of Self-Love Described” that some historians say was motivated by the fact that the Plymouth Plantation, going into its second year, had only 4 women and no sheep. These are probably the same scholars who read special significance into the biblical obsession with sheep. “After all,” they say, “Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks?” These troublemakers are perhaps forgetting that, for the “godly,” sporting with lower life forms is not interdicted. One need only reflect on their own accounts of the time roughly nine months before the First Christmas to confirm this.

Товарищ Х is a political activist and composer who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Damned to attentions of postmodernists

Reading Agatha Christie
Just below the surface is another, less orderly world, writes Dennis Altman

05 January 2009

AGATHA CHRISTIE was a shared passion with my friend, the poet Dorothy Porter, who died last month, and it is partly in her memory that I am writing this piece. “Which Aggie are you reading now?” Dorothy would ask when we met, and then tell me about the one currently on her bedside table. Some years ago we did a joint presentation to the Melbourne chapter of Sisters in Crime on “Queering Agatha,” of which more later.

This passion for Christie is widely shared. At a new year’s eve party the other day I met a young man who has just read all of her novels – more than seventy, he boasted, testament to their mutual stamina. Over the summer the ABC has programmed, yet again, the ITV Miss Marple series starring Geraldine McEwan (who has just been replaced by Julia McKenzie in a fourth series). A slightly older BBC series, with Joan Hickson as Marple, is being promoted by the BBC, perplexingly, as appealing to “fans of a good murder mystery without extra lesbianism.”

And the passion extends beyond the Anglophone countries. A few years ago the French critic, Pierre Bayard, produced a book called Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, repudiating the question Edmund Wilson posed half a century earlier: who cares who killed RA? Obviously many people do, as her books have been published in more editions, and in more languages, than those of any other author except Shakespeare. In 2004 Christie’s detectives appeared in Japanese anima versions, and in 2007 Euro Comics India began a series of graphic comic adaptations. Thirty years after her death Agatha Christie remains central to the twin canons of detective fiction and holiday entertainment.

I have long had a guilty pleasure in reading and re-reading Christie’s works, comforting myself in the knowledge that James Baldwin confessed to killing many hours in strange hotels reading those same books. I first encountered Agatha through my now dead grandmother, who – despite her very limited English – read each Christie novel with relish when it was first published. When I travel I search for old Christies in paperback: my collection includes Murder on the Orient Express in Turkish, and Zabudnuta Vrazda, the Slovak version of Sleeping Murder.

Should you come across any early Agatha Christie paperbacks, especially those with lurid covers, buy them. What use to be staples of every secondhand bookshop are becoming scarce collectible. Original hardbacks of the early novels sell for over $10,000, though there is no way of knowing whether the people who buy books for this sort of money have any intention of reading them.

Agatha Christie seems to have timeless appeal. If you associate her with nostalgia for a lost Gilbert and Sullivan, pearl necklace and sherry drinking middle England, try giving her books to a smart ten year old. I lent several of my Christies to one, who was particularly taken by the sleight of hand Christie uses in Death in the Clouds.

Partly through movie adaptations, of which there are around thirty, but also through the enthusiasm of readers, some of her books have become staples of twentieth century fiction: who has not heard of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, or been caught up in the sheer ingenuity of plotting in books like Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Then There Were None (originally Ten Little Niggers, then briefly, before that too was recognised as offensive, Ten Little Indians)?

It is commonplace to argue that Christie was a bad writer, and she pales beside the best of her successors, including P. D. James, Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George. Her dialogue is wooden, her characters one dimensional, her language appropriate to the uneducated for whom she expressed such contempt. She was a snob and a racist: the casual anti-Semitism of 1930s England runs through her early novels, in almost all of which there are minor Jewish characters, usually identified by avarice and physical appearance: “men of Hebraic extraction, sallow men with hooked noses, wearing flamboyant jewellery.” Christie had no compunction in saying she disliked “Negroes,” and south Asians and Africans only appear in classic colonial guise in her books; note the contempt for “the natives” viewed from the boat in Death on the Nile. She seems to have had a low opinion of Australians, too, though (white) South Africans and Canadians fare better.

For many of Christie’s fans on the left, including the Uruguayan Tupamaros guerillas and at least one current senior federal minister, her prejudices are discomforting. One leftist admirer, Johann Hari, a British journalist, has argued that Christie was a Burkean conservative who appeals to a deep desire for order and a suspicion of radical change. Doubtless this was true of Christie herself, but to read her books as expressing a coherent political position is to elevate her too far. Yes, there is something seductively soothing about the sense of closure and the quiet triumph of justice in Christie’s books, which reflecting a conservative sense of organic order and allows us to pass over the nastier side of her class and race biases. Her later novels are free of the overt racism of pre-war writing, but here she falls back on a simple-minded faith in hereditary evil. (One of her own favorites, Crooked House, may have inspired Roland Marsh’s novel, The Bad Seed.)

We read Christie despite her prejudices, not because of them, just as one might enjoy James Bond as entertainment but deplore Fleming’s sexism and love of violence. To take her too seriously – to quote the praise of Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and Michel Houllebecq, as does Hari – is to fall into the same trap that allows French critics to see profundities in the films of Jerry Lewis. Sometimes the superficial is all there is.

The best analysis of the works of Christie was written almost thirty years ago by Robert Barnard, whose own thrillers are very much in the Christie mode, if more satirical and less ingenious. Barnard spent some time in Australia, and his Death of an Old Goat must still cause shudders at the University of New England, which he relentlessly skewers. He defends Christie as creating remarkable puzzles; the lack of fine writing and detailed characterisation means that nothing detracts from the cleverness of the plot or from Christie’s ability to deceive the reader while supplying the necessary clues to solve the mystery. To carry out this deception Christie depended on large groups of characters who share motive, opportunity and dark secrets; other than in some university departments it is hard to imagine so many people who have reason to hate each other. Common to all Christie mysteries is what Pierre Bayard calls “a principle of disguise” that “prevents the reader from grasping the truth even while it is exposed in full view.”

These are not realistic stories, and often the complexities and references to mysterious international conspiracies, usually linked somehow to Communists and perhaps drug dealers, become ludicrous. The best are the murders set in solid upper middle class circles, though not always in England: Christie moves through Europe on trains and planes, the Nile on a steamer, Mesopotamia on an archaeological dig and even Egypt under the Pharaohs (in Death Comes at the End). Yet within these very different settings the same sorts of characters appear, stock figures that were the basis for the suspects in the board game (and film), Cluedo. Country vicars and doctors, retired colonels, spiteful spinsters, angry young men and spirited young women are common to most of her works.

YOU CAN ONLY READ Christie as “queer” – as Dorothy and I did at Sisters in Crime – if you accept that this as a game in which both the genre and the theory are being read ironically. Even with the insouciance that typifies queer theorists there is no reason to believe that Christie herself was sexually attracted to women. But her novels are full of unmarried men and spinster women – both Marple and Poirot are unattached, with only vague hints of failed romance in a long past life – and, as Dorothy remarked, remarkably free of children, who are often unpleasant when they do appear.

It’s not difficult to find coded homosexual references in Christie, particularly in her novels set in English villages, where single artistic men and devoted women companions abound. In A Murder is Announced, for instance, there is an obvious lesbian couple. In one of her later books, Nemesis, a lesbian relationship lies behind the murder itself, a theme Ruth Rendell used in one of her early novels, From Doon With Death. At least one of her minor detectives, Mr Sattherwaite, cries out for a queer reading: what is to make of a man who “is an admirer of Kew Gardens and was once in love in his youth,” gave “definitely ‘queer’ parties” and “had a large share of femininity.” Sattherwaite is killed off in 1936 in Cards on the Table, thus meeting the fate of almost all homosexual characters of his era.

[Marxist Update editor's note: Mr. Satterthwaite, of whom I am a deep admirer, is not a detective. He is a man who, in the course of a rich bachelor life spent visiting people he knows, sometimes gets a sixth sense of something strange or amiss. He knows these feelings presage the arrival of his friend Harley Quinn, a "corrector of destinies" himself more than a detective. The stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quinn are to me Christie's greatest achievement as an artist. They epitomize some of her great themes: deadly fear of social humiliation or financial or personal failure coming-to-light. JR]

Of course, “queer” carried more mixed connotations in Christie’s time than it does today, and there is a strange lack of specificity to some of her sexual references. In the eponymous novel in which Lord Edgware is disposed of, the word “queer” is used frequently, and Lord E. has a butler “who might have posed to a sculptor for Hermes or Apollo” and reads the works of Casanova, de Sade and a book on mediaeval torture. It is unclear whether Christie is hinting at homosexuality or rather a generalised middle class fear of unspecified sexual depravity among the upper classes.

The queerness of Agatha lies in the way in which she suggests another and less ordered world lying beneath conventional middle class English prejudices and class structures. Poirot’s obsession with order – he once remarked he would prefer eggs to be square than round – resonates with the theory that detective fiction is about restoring harmony. But, like Miss Marple, who constantly reminds us that evil is everywhere and can discern a mass murderer through his resemblance to the newsboy who teased cats in St Mary Mead, he also knows that civilisation is a thin veneer that at any time can be threatened by human greed and irrationality. Both of them would have made superb analysts. As Christie wrote in the preface to Cards on the Table, one of her favorites: “The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological, but it is nonetheless interesting for that, because when all is said and done it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.”

When I am falling ill one of the early signs is a desire to reread Agatha: even if I remember who did it, there is still pleasure in watching how cunningly she leads us to the eventual denouement. I shall deeply miss being able to share rehashing the fine points of her plots with Dorothy Porter. •

Dennis Altman is professor of politics at La Trobe University

Euro-fascists celebrate Franco

BNP’s fascist Franco trip
by Esme Choonara

Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party (BNP), took time out from stoking up race hatred in Britain last weekend to hobnob with fellow fascists in Europe.

Griffin attended an event organised to commemorate the death of Spanish fascist dictator General Francisco Franco. He was joined by his longstanding ally – and convicted terrorist – Italian fascist Roberto Fiore.

Reports suggest Griffin also joined a trip to Franco’s tomb—a huge mausoleum built by the slave labour of thousands of Republican prisoners.

Griffin’s trip to pay his respects to the deceased Spanish dictator followed hot on the heels of a series of appearances in east London as part of his plan to stand in Barking in the general election.

Anti-fascist activists, local trade unionists and many Barking residents have vowed to stop Griffin’s election bid.

Around 80 people demonstrated against Griffin in Barking on Thursday of last week. The protest was called by the RMT union and backed by Unite Against Fascism.

Local sources say the protest forced Griffin to abandon a walkabout planned for that time.

The protest brought together a number of residents horrified that Griffin is to target their area, with local community groups and other activists, including young people, the trades council and some Labour Party members.

Steve Hedley, RMT London regional organiser, said the union called the protest because “the RMT is a multicultural union and Barking is a multicultural area.

“We are standing up for the best traditions of tolerance for those who live and work in the East End against bigots who hope to cause division.”

Pragmatism: A Marxist view

A Marxist view of Dewey’s liberal philosophy

Printed below are excerpts from Pragmatism versus Marxism: An Appraisal of John Dewey’s Philosophy, by George Novack.... Liberal figure John Dewey (1859-1952) was the most influential proponent of the pragmatic philosophical school in the first half of the 20th century. Copyright © 1975 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.


An important national school of philosophy has to be judged not simply by the standards of the highest development of world thought, but also in the light of specific national conditions and its connections with them. Sun Yat-senism, for example, could be rejected out of hand as unworthy of consideration because it was backward and muddled compared to the clearest expressions of revolutionary democratic, not to speak of socialist, thought in the West. However, this does not dispose of it. It was the expression of an inescapable step in the awakening of modern thought in China, a weapon against mandarinism, a bridge over which the most progressive elements passed from feudal thought to Marxism.

Croce contributed little to the advance of world philosophy. Yet his historical idealism, the expression of Italian bourgeois liberalism, helped prepare minds like the communist Gramsci and others for the reception of Marxist ideas.
Today the overall national thinking of the American people is more backward than that of either China or Italy. Deweyism must be appraised in that concrete context. It is as wrong and misleading to identify pragmatism with imperialism as it is to identify pragmatism with Marxism. Pragmatism is essentially the philosophy of middle-class individuals who are caught between capital and labor; its hallmark is the attempt to find political and ideological positions somewhere between these polar forces in American society.

Two instructive examples
An event that illustrates the difference between the pragmatic and Marxist approaches to an acute social problem occurred in the last years of Dewey’s life. When the witch-hunters launched their campaign to bar "subversives" from teaching in the public schools, Dewey courageously opposed this undemocratic purge. In 1949 he justified his stand by saying that the motives of the witch-hunters were not clear and the specific results of their actions could not be foreseen. He said that the purge might have either good or bad results but he feared that the latter would be the case.

Thus Dewey hinged his reasoning on social indeterminateness and personal ignorance, not on considerations of principle. This purely pragmatic approach made it possible for virulent anticommunists like his disciple Sidney Hook to approve the exclusion of Communist Party sympathizers from teaching staffs as "conspirators" and agents of a foreign power.

The Trotskyists, like Dewey, opposed such persecutions, but on a different basis. They stated that the drive had completely reactionary motives and was bound to stifle democratic rights. Their arguments were premised on the role played by thought control in the struggles issuing from the determinate class antagonisms of American society, and on the principle that the interests of democracy and labor demanded an irreconcilable fight against the inquisitors.

Thus even where the positions taken by certain pragmatists and the Marxists on a specific issue coincided, they were based on different premises, animated by different class aims, and guided by different methods of social analysis. Middle-class elements and the workers can and do have certain points in common. This makes it possible and even necessary on occasion for their representatives to join in action against oppressions of the capitalist regime. But such united fronts on specific issues do not mean that the motives, programs, methods, and aims of the two are identical. They are often in fact quite different, as the further test of experience will show.

Although the protests against the slander and murder of Lenin’s associates [by the Stalin regime in the 1930s] was worldwide, the organized effort to stay the hand of Moscow centered in the United States. Dewey headed the International Commission of Inquiry which was supported by a united front of liberal intellectuals and left-wing Socialists. This commission performed a historic service to the world working class and to the cause of justice. Its members examined the available body of information connected with the Moscow Trials of 1937–38, concluded that they were frame-ups, and found that Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov were not guilty of the infamous charges against them. These conclusions have stood the test of time; in 1956 Khrushchev himself partially confirmed them, although not directly and honestly.

Both tendencies backing the com-mission’s work were interested in probing the case to the bottom, making known the truth about the accusations, and offering the exiled Trotsky the opportunity to present his defense to the public. These tasks were done, and done well. But the two allies did not have the same political motives.

Many liberals took the exposure of Stalin’s crimes against the working class and its revolutionary representatives as an opportunity to strike a blow against socialism. They vaunted the superiority of bourgeois democracy over Stalinist totalitarianism by falsely identifying the policies and misdeeds of the Soviet bureaucracy with genuine communism and asserting that Stalinism was the logical outcome of Leninism.

The Marxists had different objectives. They faced the difficult dual task of exposing the crimes of Stalinism while defending the honor of Bolshevism, the traditions of Marxism, and the program of socialism against both their desecrators and detractors. The Marxists saw no reason for exalting the virtues of an imperialist democracy which was splotched with a criminal record extending from world wars to frame-ups of labor militants and lynchings of Blacks. They explained that the very fact that Stalin had to besmirch and slaughter an entire generation of revolutionary leaders showed how incompatible his regime was with that of Lenin’s time. Dewey himself utilized the occasion of the announcement of his Commission’s verdict in 1937 not only to repledge allegiance to democratic liberalism but to denounce Trotsky’s doctrines as no better than Stalin’s. This uncalled-for disavowal was one of the signs of the growing reconciliation by American intellectuals with imperialism in the late thirties, which culminated in their support to its war. By 1941 the anti-Stalinist liberals found themselves together with the American Stalinists--and against the Trotskyists--on the war issue.