Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Fate of Fascism

“Enemy at the Gates,” by William Craig (2000)

In 2001, ‘Enemy at the Gates’ was made into a film focused on the Soviet sniper Vassili Ziatsev and his actions at Stalingrad, including a love affair with Tania Chernova, another Soviet sniper. This is the book the film was partly based on - though Ziatsev plays only a small part in this book. Craig uses a partly novelistic treatment of the battle, one of the most crucial armed confrontations in world history, combining numerous personal stories on both sides with an overall description of events. Unlike many badly-written war books, it does not just concern itself solely with the sterile and microscopic movements of units and armies.

It was in Russia and China that the overwhelming bulk of World War II fighting took place, as fascism’s key target was the labor movement, the Soviet state and the Chinese Red Army. The Battle of Stalingrad saw perhaps the greatest casualty figures of any battle in warfare - estimates are between 1,250,000 and 1,798,619. The battle began on 17 July 1942. By the winter of 1942–43, German forces controlled 90% of the city, and had cornered the Soviets into two narrow pockets. On November 19, Soviet forces launched a massive counterattack, eventually encircling the Sixth German Army. On January 31, 1943 its commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, surrendered and the Battle of Stalingrad was over. The 68th anniversary is tomorrow, and all opponents of fascism should celebrate.

Little is now left of the devastation visited on the city and people of Stalingrad. Craig describes the fighting from house to house, sewer to sewer, room to room and factory to factory over the months. Buildings, basements and the biggest hill in the city, Mamaev Hill, changed hands numerous times. The Soviet 62nd army eventually lost control of nearly everything in the city except some caves along the Volga and bits of factories and apartment buildings in the northern part of the city. Supplies and men had to be brought across the river by ships, which were bombed by the German air-force on crossing. At a certain point, the ice flows stopped all shipping. The defenders of Stalingrad (now Volvograd, formerly Tsaritsyn) were starved for food, men and ammunition, until a day in December when the ice backed up and bridges could be built across the ice.

The names of the factories – the Lazur Plant, the Red October, the Barrikady Gun Factory and the Tractor Factory - have gone into legend. At the start of the battle, when German Panzer units arrived on the north end of Stalingrad, workers downed tools, took up rifles and machine-guns and marched to meet them. Unpainted T-34s from the Red October plant were driven off the assembly lines and right into battle. The workers’ militia held out for weeks against the Panzers until regular troops could arrive. In the southern part of the city individual unit leaders like Lt. Anton Dragan, Col. Ivan Lyudnikov and Sgt Jacob Pavlov fought for days in close quarters to slow and eventually stop the German Sixth Army. Pavlov held an apartment building on Solechnaya Street for 58 days, and eventually he made it to Berlin.

The Nazi penetration this deep into the Soviet Union was not an accident. Stalin’s actions prior to the invasion by Germany left the Soviet Union unprepared. His execution of the majority of the Red Army’s officer corps for being ‘Trotskyists’ and ‘fascist sympathizers’ lead to a great shortage of qualified officers. His execution of the overwhelming majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee further disorganized the Soviet Union. And after signing a pact with Hitler in 1939, (notice, Trotsky did not sign this pact…) Stalin believed that the English were the main enemy and the Germans would not invade - in spite of massive Soviet intelligence to the contrary. As a result, the Red Army was far less prepared than they could have been when the assault finally did happen. This lead to a massive collapse in the face of German armies, leading to millions of deaths and came close to ending the Soviet workers state. Right after the German invasion had rolled to the gates of Moscow, the staff of the Soviet state finally visited the shaken Stalin. He thought he would be shot for incompetence. He was not. Unsurprisingly.

Fortunately there were still some competent generals left. Generals Vassili Chuikov, Rodion Malinovsky (who later worked with Khrushchev), Alexander Rodimtsev, Konstantin Rokossovsky, Andrei Yeremenko and political commissar Nikita Khrushchev all participated in the battle. Yeremenko, who lead the initial defense of the city and succeeded in halting Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army south of Stalingrad, later wrote a book criticizing Stalin for the defeats of 1941. Rodimtsev lead the 13th Guards division at Stalingrad, which was decimated in building-to-building fighting in the city, but made the capture of the city extremely costly to the Nazis.

Chuikov was one of the engineers of the pincer movement which broke through the Italian and Hungarian armies north of Stalingrad, and joined forces coming from the south at Sovetsky to completely surround the Sixth Army in the ‘Kessel’ (Cauldron). Hitler had forbidden the Sixth Army from trying to break out and kept telling Paulus they would air-lift enough supplies to help him fight on until a relief force arrived. Enough supplies never arrived, due to stormy winter weather and the increasingly strong Soviet air-force. The relief force was stopped 20 miles from Paulus’ lines. Hitler essentially condemned his army to death for the glory of the Third Reich, as he thought leaving Stalingrad would be an admission of defeat.

One of he oddest parts of this story is the statistics kept by German censors, who read all the letters sent by the troops. From their letters, even at the very end, many soldiers refused to believe that the German Army could be defeated. This is a good example of false consciousness.

After the surrender, as Khrushchev pointed out, many German, Romanian, Italian and Hungarian soldiers (their ‘coalition of the willing’…) were shot; hundreds of thousands died in prison camps or on the way to camps by starvation, cold and execution – Craig puts the number at around 400,000. The most grotesque part of this was that cannibalism developed inside the camps, as some prisoners killed and ate others. The majority of prisoners never made it back home, and of those, some not until 1949, and the most hard-core, not until 1955.

If there is one World War II battle that should be studied, this is that battle, and Craig's book is a clear guide. It was the Soviet people and the Soviet working class that finally stopped Hitler, though at great, great cost. Drink a shot of Stolichnaya on January 31 to commemorate their struggle and remember the departed. Na zdorovye! Za vashe zdorovie!

Red Frog
January 30, 2011

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Socialism - not just for Europeans anymore

“The Structural Crisis of Capital,” by István Mézáros, 2010

Mézáros is a former comrade of Georg Lukacs, who left Hungary in 1956 and is now a professor of philosophy and Marxism at the University of Sussex in the UK. Like many European Marxists, he was schooled in Marxism in the universities, not just in the streets. This is a collection of essays (and interviews) written from the 1970s to the present, which give a flavor of his thinking and his most famous book - “Beyond Capital” – a book copiously studied by Hugo Chavez.

The main point that Mézáros makes is that capital (not just capitalism) has been in a long ‘creeping’ structural crisis since the late 1960s / early 1970s. This is not to be confused with any ‘long boom’ or ‘long wave,’ a theory he negates. He seems to identify the end of the ‘profitable conjuncture’ after World War II with the events of May-June 1968 in France; the end of Bretton Woods under Nixon, which turned the U.S, away from the gold standard in the early 70s; and paying for the war in Vietnam. He calls it, following George McGovern, the development of “credit card capitalism.’ Mézáros closely parallels the thesis of Baran and Sweezy that capital abandoned insufficient profits from production activities, and responded to the crisis by switching over to a more profitable emphasis on finance capital. Capital intentionally ‘de-industrialized’ Europe and the United States to accomplish this.

From his analysis, the present seems unlike the period prior to World War II, when boom/busts were the normal capitalist cycle. The final seizure of world monopoly power by the U.S. after the war issued in a different situation. Boom/busts were then exported to the subjugated nations of the world instead of being primarily located in the imperial centers. Of course, this is still going on. In addition, the stabilizing role of the non-market USSR and eastern Europe ended in 1989. These were areas in which capital did not yet directly control their economies, and hence did not suffer from instability. Because capital has intimately spread across nearly every part of the globe now, including the former non-capitalist areas, exporting busts to other countries is becoming much more dangerous. Because capital is now exporting the bust to ITSELF. As a result, capital has even less insulation from a crisis. In fact, if it was not for the only partly-capitalist Chinese economy, it is transparent that the present capital crisis would be much deeper.

Drawing from this perspective, Mézáros sees that the global character of this structural crisis reflects a terminal phase of capital. It is terminal because it is no longer confined to one or several nations, and it is terminal because of the massive scale of debt, unpredictability and environmental dead-ends involved. Essentially the debt is unpayable. No amount of Krugmanesque left-Keynesianism or trade-union bargaining or shop-steward grievances can change what is happening to the system as a whole. As a result, he sees a growing opportunity for the working class and revolutionaries to take advantage of this systemic weakness. In that sense, Mézáros is a hugely optimistic thinker.

Instead of describing the variegated essays as a whole, I am going to bullet-point some of his specific thoughts.

1. Mézáros praises Marcuse for identifying how labor had been integrated into capital’s structure. But he thinks Marcuse’s conclusion – that capital was now ‘managed’ and that welfare capitalism was ‘permanent,’ and that hence the working class was no longer the revolutionary class – was mistaken. As he wryly notes, exporting manual labor to other countries does not remove the working class from history. He cites Marx, who even in the 1800s pointed out the growing proletarianization of every phase of white-collar and service industry work - much of which still exists in the advance capital countries. This proletarianization continues today.

2. Mézáros has an essay on the “Bolivarian Revolution” – praising Chavez and Morales, and indicating the absolutely central role of ‘substantive equality’ in the socialist project. This equality was first articulated by Enlightenment thinkers like Jean Jacque Rousseau, and later made specific to Latin America by Simon Rodriquez, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar and now Chavez. He feels the project of uniting all of Latin America against U.S. domination is becoming more and more possible.

3. Mézáros believes the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ over any length of time was and is absolutely untenable, and has been proven so by history. He quotes Lenin to the effect that even in Russia it was a ‘holding action.’ Capital continues to exert pressure on any post-capitalist society and will restore capitalism there, barring world-wide revolutions. Mézáros distinguishes between ‘overthrowing the capitalists’ and actually ending capital’s power, which demands something more - a ‘permanent revolution,’ according to Mézáros

4. Capital is unable to plan, and only makes a feeble attempt after the fact of a great crisis or collapse – he slyly calls it ‘planning post festum.’ Hence instability is endemic, and unknown ‘crises’ – black swans as the market now calls them – can crush the existing economic and social relations in a heartbeat. Capital can never take ‘responsibility’ because even capital does not understand how their own system works. For instance, none of the heads of government or banks issued a mea culpa after the most recent collapse. Mézáros feels planning is central to the socialist project, but it must be planning resulting from the democratic control of the process by the associated producers – not from above, nor through fake, partial planning.

5. The present capitalist crisis involved the ‘nationalization’ of the debts of the banking system to the tune of trillions of dollars, to be paid for by the tax-payer and the working class. The purpose is then to return the banks to private profitability – something the British government did after WWII. This is not true nationalization, of course, but shows that capital cannot rescue itself, but needs its government to extort money out of the population to do so. Mézáros believes that at some point the U.S. will declare bankruptcy. The sovereign debt crisis wracking the E.U. may well be a prelude to this. The debt will never be repaid due to its uncontrollable size.

6. Mézáros thinks that a ‘radicalization of the still primarily reformist trade union movement’ in every country is the answer to the crisis of capital, as ‘the goods’ can no longer be delivered in the way they were after WWII. In a way, it means going back to the beginning.

7. The collapse of the French and Italian Communist Parties, the British Labour Party and others were all part of the capital crisis, as reformism no longer had ground to stand on.

8. Capital is undermining their own systems of social control, by making more blatant their control of educational institutions, cultural entities, political parties and religious organizations. The ‘advanced’ capitalist societies are ‘tolerant’ only to a certain point, but ‘not beyond the point where protest starts to become effective and turns into a genuine social challenge to the perpetuation of the society of repressive tolerance.’

9. Mézáros believes the socialist movement has to become less defensive, and more aggressive in promoting a positive socialist vision of the future – as Marx called socialism humanity’s ‘positive self-consciousness.’ Substantive equality (not mere legal equality), dispositive time (not spent slaving), liberty from want and calamity, solidarity, cooperation and responsibility – all values of a socialist project, need to be promoted in the face of de-humanized profiteering. Like Chavez, Mézáros feels there is little time in which to respond to the social, economic and environmental crises at hand. This cannot happen by ‘regulation’ or by tinkering with some economic category, as is the favorite hobby-horse of Krugman and other liberals, but through a re-politicization of politics by the masses of people.

10. According to Mézáros, world wars, those most efficient generators of production and outlets for capital formation, have become impossible. Small wars will multiply, but a large war is simply unaffordable. Even the 'small' wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have pushed the U.S. towards insolvency.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 1/16/2011

Monday, January 3, 2011

Not for the Faint of Heart

“In the Crossfire - Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary,” by Ngo Van, 2010.

Most of the books available in the US on the struggles in Vietnam are written from either an American perspective or from the perspective of Ho Chi Minh. This book reflects the independent views and activities of the extremely militant labor, national and Marxist movements in Saigon in the 20s to the late 40s, written by a former supporter of the 4th International, who became a supporter of council-communism after his forced move to France. Ignorance of the history of the Vietnamese labor and peasant movements before the “American’ war is rife among the U.S. left, and this book is a good cure.

In Van’s time, nearly every revolutionary outside the Vietminh died. They were either killed by the French Secret Police - the Surete - in executions or jails; by the Vietminh themselves in planned assassinations and murders; by various criminal gangs, or by the Japanese. Van survived all by escaping.

The Trotskyists had a large following in Saigon and the surrounding areas. They were instrumental in many strikes, in forming workers’ militias, in supporting independent peasant actions, in publishing classic works of Trotsky and others, like Harold Isaacs “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution,” and in being repeatedly elected to the Saigon City Council in the mid and late 30s over the representatives of the Stalinist ICP. Hence their existence was a threat to the ICP’s control of the people’s movement. As a result, some of Van's comrades were killed in a mass murder of Trotskyists and their supporters by Vietminh death squads in Thu Dau Mot in September 1945, on orders of the Indochinese Communist Party (“ICP”). The ICP formed the leadership of the Vietminh. Another group, including Chinese Trotskyists, were killed and tortured in Bien Hoa in 1950. Former Stalinists would issue orders to execute those they had once worked and shared jail cells with.

The book is written in the style of a memoir, with a haunting section in the middle devoted to the mostly forgotten dead revolutionaries Van knew. This includes the most famous Vietnamese Trotskyist, Ta Thu Thau, who was the leader of the “La Lutte” group, and who Van had some differences with. “La Lutte’ was a joint publication of the Marxists in Saigon, including both the Trotskyists and the Stalinists. They collaborated together for 5 years until 1937 when Moscow ordered, through the French CP, that their supporters in Vietnam stop working with the ‘twin brothers of fascism.’ La Lutte continued under sole Trotskyist leadership and Thau was again elected in 1939 to the Saigon City Council. Smelling the coming apocalypse, the French denounced Thau as someone who would ‘take advantage of a possible war in order to win total liberation.’ Which, of course, was the plan.

The differences between the two sides were stark, as the ICP for many years formed a ‘popular front’ with the bourgeois elements in Vietnam, similar to policy in Spain and China. As a result, they opposed independent action by the working class and peasants. During the period of the 1920-1947 covered in this book, the ICP opposed workers strikes and occupations, urban people’s committees, peasant seizures of land and peasant ‘soviets,’ a coal-miners Commune of 30,000 workers in Hongai-Campha, and arming the population. As part of the people's movement, the Trotskyists formed a street-car workers’ militia in Saigon. The ICP's position was all consistent with the ICP pledge of working with ‘progressive’ bourgeois elements. The ICP used violent methods to oppose these developments, not just propaganda. As the Vietminh (ICP) minister of the interior Nguyen Van Tao put it, “Those who are encouraging the peasants to take over landed property will be punished without mercy.”

The Vietminh blocked with Blum’s popular front government in the 1930s, even though during the French popular front, the French government continued activities against the Vietnamese popular movements. At one point, the ICP supported defencist measures sponsored by the French colonial government against the Japanese, like promoting war bonds and promoting a French military draft of Vietnamese. A post-war insurrection in Saigon in 1945 was crushed, partly because the ICP did not pose a clear alternative to the French, unlike the position of the Trotskyists. In 1946 Ho formed a block with General LeClerc that disarmed the Vietnamese masses, and allowed the French to re-conquer Vietnam after the defeat of the Japanese. What is the significant factor here is that whatever the Soviet line was, the local CP had to follow it, even if it contradicted the needs of the local working class.

Born in 1912, Van himself grew up in a poor peasant home north of Saigon, and, after failing to get into some critical schools due to lack of influence, lived in Saigon. In the ‘20s he involved himself in the revolutionary movement. He met many prominent activists while in prison or on the run and in hiding, was deported to Phnom Penh, was almost killed several times, and his remembrances form the heart of the book. In 1937 while an activist in Saigon, he wrote pamphlets denouncing the fraudulent Moscow Trials, and some criticisms of Thau for working with the Stalinists on “La Lutte.” This book incidentally exposes the violent history of two of Ho’s successors, Pham Van Dong and Ton Duc Thang. Both involved in murdering a woman ICP comrade who had fallen in love with the wrong person, and both did jail time for the murder.

After emigrating to France in 1948 to avoid certain death, Van settled in Paris, and eventually got electrical technician jobs at various factories. All the while he suffered from tuberculosis, contracted in Vietnam, and in hospital learned to paint. He met many expatriate Vietnamese, some of the 40,000 soldiers and civilians drafted and deported to France by the French to serve the French Army during World War II. While in France, he wrote and published a massive and detailed history of the Vietnamese struggle, in two volumes, covering 1920 to 2005, which is still in print. He also met many people who had fought in Spain or had left the Trotskyist movement to become either 'third' campists or council communists. He later became a ‘council communist,’ working with “News & Letters” and others. Van grew to reject not just the Leninist idea of the party, but Soviet defencism, including the Ho regime in Vietnam. Given his experiences in the struggle there, it is somewhat understandable. Van wrote about the French 1968 events from his position as a factory worker, noting the conservatizing influence of the French CP in his factory, which flew the tri-color and the red flag – literally, and politically - during the 1968 events, and the CP role in limiting and ending the rebellion.

Van’s principled opposition to the popular front reveals the misguided strategy of Stalinist reformism. Only when the Vietnamese CP, in practice, was forced to ronouce popular front 'strategy' did they overthrow private capitalism in Vietnam - though this happened only after decades of bloody 'mistakes' and massacres. This delayed the revolution by three or more decades - and also guaranteed that any victory would be deformed from the beginning. Instead of the working class and peasantry holding power, the CP bureaucracy took power in their 'name.' Any bureaucracy engenders capitalist counter-revolution, a process that has already succeeded in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and is well advanced in China. And it is even developing in Vietnam itself.

In China this process is through intense collaboration with international capital, through the encouragement of a national capitalist class - some out of the ranks of the CCP, through graft and privilege, and most of all, by ignoring workers democracy, weakening or destroying ties with the working class and farmers. When the Party is no longer seen as representing anyone but themselves, counter-revolution is inevitable. The real communist slogan, after all, is "all power to the Soviets," not "all power to the Communist Party."

It is to the courageous mass movements and revolutionaries in and around Saigon that we owe this understanding, who learned it with their own blood.

Red Frog,
January 3, 2011