Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hungarian Bad Rhapsody

A Statue of Limitations
 
The Hungarian elections are over.  The controversy over the ‘memory’ statute to World War II goes on.

Victor Orban’s Fidesz won the recent national elections against the neo-liberal, pro-EU Magyar “Socialist” Party (“MSZP”) again.  Jobbik came in second in the EU elections and retained their hold on 3rd in national elections.  A tiny left organization made no headway.  Marx is discredited, so no working class path is open at this point.  The MSZP is the rechristened Hungarian Socialist' Workers Party, which held power until 1989, and then became a social-democratic organization.  The MSZP was elected several times until the effects of the European economic collapse hit Hungary in 2009.  Hungary now flounders under the right-populist and reactionary nationalist leadership of Fidesz.  Fidesz considers all Hungarian-speaking citizens of Transylvania, a region now in Romania, as voters and citizens of a ‘greater’ Hungary.  Revanchism by any other name…  

 Fidesz and Jobbik represent a reactionary Hungarian  response to the failures of the EU - principally the EU's reliance on the capitalist financial markets, real estate as private property and austerity for the working classes.  Scapegoating immigrants, Jews, Roma or 'foreigners' is the main line of nearly all the parties that were more successful in the recent European Parliament elections except Syriza.  Which goes to show that people have to break to the left of the social-democrats to give voice to the working classes.

The statue planned for Szabadság Térre square  (‘Freedom Square’) in Budapest presents the Nazi imperial eagle attacking the Archangel Gabriel, which symbolizes an innocent Hungarian (and evidently Catholic) nation.  Unfortunately for Orban, real memory still exists.  Miklos Horthy, the leader of Hungary through most of World War II, was an ally of Hitler’s until 1944.  Horthy sent divisions into Russia, some of which were encircled at Stalingrad.  When the Nazi’s got wind that Horthy’s ardor was cooling due to the progress of the Soviet Army, they moved some troops into Hungary.  430,000 Hungarian Jews were then deported to death camps, but with only tangential help from the Nazis.  The Hungarian Arrow Cross were put in power in the last year of the war, and drove Hungarian politics to its logical conclusion - with the help of the existing Hungarian state.  Eichmann, the mastermind behind the Holocaust, was impressed by how efficient the Hungarian authorities were in rounding up Jews. 

Admiral Horthy had been an anti-Semite since his crushing of the Budapest Soviet in 1919, and the identification of communism with Judaism.  Many anti-Jewish laws were passed while he was in power as a virtual military dictator, dominating Hungarian politics for 25 years.  Fidesz supports the restoration of his memory, which is the subtext of this very statue.  Fidesz denies that Horthy had anything to do with the Holocaust, or that even any Hungarians had anything to do with the Holocaust. Or that Hungary was in a block with the German state.  Denying that the Hungarian Holocaust was linked to Horthy or the Arrow Cross is like being a grave-digger, but claiming you had no role in putting the body in the ground – or shooting it.   It’s just all those Nazis…  It’s a bit like U.S. southerners thinking that the U.S. Civil War was about ‘states rights’ and not slavery.  A white-washing of history. 

The Hungarian Jewish organization Mazsihisz, officially-recognized artists and a prominent art historian have opposed the statue – the latter two on cultural grounds.  Mazsihisz has pulled out of any event to dedicate the statue.  Even 32 U.S. senators sent a letter opposing the statue – though they were all Jewish, which is a typical culture-war ethnic mistake. (Yeah, only the "Jews" care!) Activists dismantled the scaffolding of the statue for several days, so now police ring the construction site at all times.   Jobbik backs Fidesz in supporting the design.   They are an anti-Semitic and anti-Roma organization, at this point a pale reflection of the Arrow Cross. Jobbik recently put up a statue of their own to Horthy near a right-wing Catholic church in Budapest.  Meanwhile, nearly all the statues to the Soviet Army, the 1919 workers’ councils and the Hungarian workers state have been relegated to a park outside town.

Politics is now fought through monuments.  I wonder when they will tear down the statues of the poets that dot Budapest and put them in a ‘park’ in the suburbs – to be replaced by statues of Fidesz television stars!

Red Frog
May 27, 2014 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Kumbaya

A Reconstitution of the Left?

A month ago a member of Worker’s World came from New York to talk at Mayday.  He hosted a discussion on why the left should unite.  His organization – or former organization - Worker’s World - originated out of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the 1950s.  It is very activist, runs candidates and is heavily involved in the anti-war movement in the U.S., where it is influential in one national coalition.  It also recently endured a split.  It calls itself "Marxist-Leninist," works in a somewhat heavy-handed manner and does not allow known factions in its ranks from my experience.

I welcome this initiative.  Most people on the left – and by this I mean the Marxist left - intellectually ‘know’ that the left needs to unite in some way to have any impact in a massive country like the U.S., among a very diffuse and variegated working class.   After hearing his talk and some discussion, members and supporters of Socialist Action, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Communist Party, along with independents, nodded in agreement that unity was a ‘good idea.’  But when a resolution was raised to write a letter to the heads of the various left groups in the U.S. to suggest unity talks, it was not taken up.  

As the joke goes, ‘workers of the world unite’ is all fine and good for the hoi polloi working class, but it certainly can’t apply to Marxists!  After all, Lenin – ah Lenin – split with those damn Mensheviks and after all – all those OTHER groups are Mensheviki too!  So why should we unite with ‘Mensheviks’ and deviate from our unilateral effort of ‘building’ the perfect “Marxist-Leninist” Party?  The flip side is that 'those people' are hopeless ultra-lefts and no one can work with them.  Or so the rhetoric goes. And some of it is true.

But here’s why.  Because the term “Leninist” in the present context does not mean what it meant on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution.  It is a code word that theoretically justifies the isolation of small groups of leftists, and which as a consequence, gives them very limited influence.  It is reflective of a ‘small group mentality’ - which Lenin denounced himself.   Oddly enough, for more than 14 years, from 1898 to 1912, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks existed in the same organization, even under conditions of illegality for a time.  The 1912 split occurred only 5 years before the October revolution.  The split naturally evolved in the Russian context and was definitive when the Mensheviks backed the imperialist World War I in 1914.  It reflected the growth in consciousness of the working class movement in Russia, not a pre-determined schema imposed from the past.  The so-called Leninist form of organization is especially suited for the taking of power and for illegal work, and neither of these conditions exist presently in most countries. 

Contributing to the myth of Leninism is the extreme fetishization of the revolution in Russia.  It is the wet-dream of every American leftist that never ends.  Everyone loves success!  But when you have to hark back to something almost 100 years ago in a country with a small working class, a weak bourgeoisie, a ruling royal clique and a very large peasantry, you are not describing very many countries in the world anymore.  Most of the world has crossed over to urbanism.  Kings are few and far between, except in certain Muslim countries.  Especially the international bourgeoisie is far stronger in most places.  Certainly the U.S. is nothing like Russia in 1917.  The German revolution of 1918-1919 is far more reflective of conditions in the U.S. and other developed and semi-developed countries – and certainly, that was unsuccessful, even then.  But it should be studied for that very reason.  It involved more than a dozen significant large mass organizations that supported the move to a working-class ‘council republic’ – not just the Spartacus League.  More modern events, like May-June 1968 in France and attempted revolutions in Pakistan and elsewhere should also be studied.  Certainly the more recent an event involving the working classes, the more valuable it is to look at.

Success is what people want, which is why there were so many Soviet, then Chinese, then Cuban, then Vietnamese acolytes in the 1960s and 1970s – all now come to grief or chastened.  The Chinese, Korean, Yugoslav, Albanian and Vietnamese revolutions were part of a massive anti-fascist / anti-imperialist struggle originating out of World War II, not based on urban revolutions posing a sole ‘class v class’ perspective.  The Vietnamese (and Cubans) won later, based on guerrilla warfare, backed by the majority of the population.  The Vietnamese staked their struggle on anti-imperialism, the Cubans on an anti-dictatorial/anti-imperialist slant.  In retrospect, without World War I it would have been harder for the successful insurrection in Russia and the unsuccessful insurrections in Germany and Hungary to come about.  Without World War II it is doubtful that the Soviet Army would have rolled into Poland, Hungary, and the rest of Central Europe and backed the move to workers states there.  (Which might surprise so many American anti-communists.) 

War is a mother of revolution.  Imperialism is a mother of revolution.  When there is no war, what then?  Guerrilla war?  That strategy is not workable for most countries presently, although rural guerrilla groups have been somewhat successful in Nepal and have held their own in India.  As urban areas gain more social weight, this strategy will become more difficult.  Urban guerrilla warfare was somewhat successful 40 years ago in certain countries, but nowhere did it lead to a victory. 

In Europe there are tentative moves in the direction of unity among elements of the ‘hard left’ and even the ‘soft left’ due to the capitalist decay in Europe.  Certainly the SYRIZA bloc in Greece was called forth by conditions, although the Greek Communist Party refused to participate and has adopted a ‘go-it-alone’ strategy.  This SYRIZA block has been imitated now in Italy, especially for the Euro-elections.  The formation of the Anti-Capitalist Party in France is open to all anti-capitalists, but the Communist Party has refused to participate there too, and blocked with the neo-liberal Socialist Party candidates instead.  The formation of “Refoundation” in Italy many years ago was out of Maoist, Trotskyist and former left-CP groups, as the CP itself became an openly social-democratic formation.  Events in Spain are pushing certain groups together - Podemos and the United Left.  In Venezuela the mass socialist party there unites many disparate elements.  You might be able to name other formations across the world, as I do not follow these developments closely anymore.  But that doesn’t change the imperative. (I have been informed by an article by Murray Smith that other similar European organizations are the Scottish Socialist Party, Dei Linke in Luxembourg, the Danish "Red-Green Alliance," the Portugese "Left Bloc and a new organization in Britain, Left Unity.) 

World-wide there has to be a reorganization of the left, a ‘refoundation.’  A process of reorganization of the U.S. left would go something like this.  Call it what you will, by the way.  A ‘left front’ could lead to an ‘anti-capitalist front,’ which could lead to a broad ‘workers front’ – all based on class principles.  Left groups would not lose their existence, but endure as groupings within broader formations.  They would sit on a ‘left front’ steering committee which would be composed of members of constituent groups, and after awhile, elected by the broader organization.  As many independent leftists, socialists and workers join a formation not dominated by a single tendency, that ‘front’ might begin to have an independent existence as something greater than its parts, with more national weight than any one group. It might even pull in left groups that had initially hesitated.  It would be united on certain broad demands and perhaps methods, though not necessarily on a complete agreement on every point of history!  For instance, arguing about Scottish nationalism or the Hitler/Stalin pact at this point should not impede joint work.  Organizations that specialized in certain areas of work could continue that, but under the name of the ‘front.’  Comrades with talents in writing, speaking, educating, organizing, practical and cultural arts, self-defense, tech knowledge and other skills will be able to pool their resources instead of limping along on their own.  In a city like Minneapolis, a left front like this could have hundreds of members pretty quickly if done right, and be influential in a good number of groups. 

This left front could run candidates, participate in union affairs, engage in occupations, strikes, organize both legal and illegal actions where necessary.  Eventually this grouping could attract even proletarian anarchists like the IWW, black and Latino groups that might not be leftist, and anyone who is anti-capitalist, though they might not necessarily be Marxist or explicitly socialist.   A broader anti-capitalist action front could then engage with larger formations, like unions and eventually draw advanced workers, unions,  and working-class community groups into a broad ‘workers front’ based on class struggle across the whole society, in every arena, including the electoral one.   In this whole process, certain groups or people that do not advance the struggle but side with the capitalists or their Parties will be exposed and they will, naturally – as did the Mensheviks – drop away. 

The benefit of present ‘Leninist’ organization is that it preserves a homunculus of activists who are able to carry on theoretical and practical work, even in the worst conditions of working class inactivity.  It trains and educates people in valuable skills that many people do not have.  It is like a seed whose hard shell protects those traditions and that organization, and allows them to endure.  We are all familiar with vague leftist groups that disappeared because of a lack of internal organization – look at the various groups organized around CLR James based on the spontaneity of the class.  However, that same ‘hard shell’ can become sterile when it does not allow roots to grow.  Sorry to go all “Being There” on you, but its pretty obvious if your goal is larger than a seat on the local anti-war committee.    

And after taking power, it should 'whither away.'

I have a theory that, at present, there is a mathematical relationship between the number of full-timers on staff in any group and the number of members required to support them.  Of course, this also relates to how high the ‘tax’ is on the members.   If a group gets too large and ostensibly ‘diverse’ the ‘leaders’ can no longer accommodate or control the group, as most present leaders are not capable of handling groups over a certain size.  Sociologists would be able to pinpoint that number, but it is in the hundreds.  Splits then occur.  This also accounts for the tremendous revolving door that these groups have, and why they generally do not grow, or grow and collapse.  Their long-term behaviour imitates unions, as a clique of experienced old-timers sit at the top, having grown comfortable with each other.  Nothing can disturb this set up until some critical moment comes when there are not enough dues-paying members, and the group implodes. Or leaders have a falling-out.

The impetus for unity will arise from outside the left if there is ever a serious challenge to capitalist power – and it will come from a working class which is puzzled by so many left sects.  Severe economic austerity, war, the rise of fascist organizations, a crumbling of living standards, the weakening of unions, the theoretical bankruptcy of bourgeois parties and neo-liberalism – all put pressure on the left to work together.  Ultimately it is the experience of people in struggle that leads them to understand the issues dividing left groups at present.  No amount of assigned reading will do that.  Marx commented that “one step of real progress is worth a dozen Programmes.”

  A million or two of workingmen's votes next November for a bona fide workingmen's party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform.” – Engels, “Condition of the English Working Class.”  - 1844

For instance, while some people find weaknesses with the practice of Socialist Alternative here in the U.S., their electoral victory in Seattle has put actual ‘socialists’ back on the map, which is no small feat.

If working-class people cannot work together due to ethnic or cultural issues, if unions raid each others turf, if some unions block with management, if some union leaders work with the capitalist parties exclusively, then how can leftists preach class unity when they themselves replicate the very same problems?  The present left is a reflection of the low level of the working class it is produced by, of course.  Cynics will say it can’t be done, and they have a point.  Most leaders of left groups have not been able to get along.  Very little joint activity exists except in broad single-issue coalitions.  Single-issue coalitions by their nature cannot really mount a significant challenge to the class system.  We are overrun with single-issue struggles.   I see no other choice at present than beginning to work together. 

The present ‘Leninist’ organizations hope that one-on-one recruiting to each small group will prepare each for the ‘swell’ of class struggle to lift their little boat to the heights.  Each group has a story to tell to prospective members and to the present cadre, in the past or present or ‘future.’ It is about the great work that was done or is being done somewhere else, or that they just did.  This is the bedtime story of success sung to the comrades - for each group has one or several traditions to rely on.  I certainly listened to it for a time.  As the months or years go by, the glory fades and waiting continues   All in all, on the whole, a sort of passive, economist waiting.  Lenin actually did not believe that ‘events’ are conclusive.  No automatic ‘collapse’ will suddenly expose the capitalist lie – for they can usually weather even the most dreadful storm they have created – like Katrina, the invasion of Iraq, the 2008 market collapse, the bankruptcy of Detroit.  These challenges cannot be fought in the modern U.S. without a significant organization.  Right now that organization does not exist, and will not exist by present methods.

P.S. - The Slovenian "United Left Coalition," which has support from every Slovenian ethnic group, won 6 seats in Parliament in the recent elections.  The left is coming back in the former workers' states!

Red Frog
May 23, 2014

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Prison-House of Nations

Presentation on the Situation in Pakistan, by John Peterson, 5/9/2014

John Peterson spoke at Mayday Books, representing the Pakistan Trade Union Defense Campaign and the Workers International League.  He gave an excellent fact-based survey of the situation in Pakistan and a bit of the history of that country, and asserted that it was possible for Pakistan to have a socialist revolution if actual Marxists continued to gain enough influence in the Pakistani mass movement.

Pakistan is a country in a continuous crisis that basically doesn’t work any more.  The CIA is close to putting it on a list of ‘failed states.’  What has really failed is Pakistani capitalism for the mass of the population.  As John noted, the capital of Pakistan is in Switzerland, as the goal of the ruling class is to loot the nation for all they can get.  It is the 6th most populous nation in the world, at 190 million people, and its geographic location is central to that part of Asia.  Karachi has been declared the world’s ‘most dangerous place.’  Every power – the U.S., China, the Saudis, the Iranians, and India – are all attempting to control events in that country.  Peterson quoted Lenin in that Russia was a ‘prison-house of nations.”  He pointed out that the myriad ethnic and religious groups in Pakistan also make it – and the rest of south Asia – a prison-house of nations too.  The ISI is the Pakistani CIA/FBI/NSA and Pentagon rolled into one.  They control the country for all practical purposes, including the drug and arms trades, and work with the Taliban and other fundamentalists.  They dominate this section of the prison-house. 

Poverty is grinding and the infrastructure has not been improved since the late 40s.  Power outages are continuous – as the Pakistani’s say, they are the ‘happiest people on earth’ when the power returns.  The average income is Pakistan is $3,100 per year, or $250 per month – but that is an average, not accounting for class.  60% live on less than $2 a day.  30% live on less than $1 a day.  Official unemployment is 6.6%, but the figures are bogus.  Estimates of 70-80% of the economy is based on the black market.  Food prices have risen, as they are doing across the world, and the rupee has declined 40% in value.  Millions have to leave Pakistan to find slave-labor jobs in the Gulf states, in Australia or in South Africa. Remittances are $1B per month – a large part of the income of the nation.  So one of Pakistan’s key exports is human labor.  The top 10% of the population have 28% of the income.  The status of women is deplorable, below that of most countries.  The infant mortality rate is 88 in 1,000.  The rate in the US is 6 per 1000, and that is on the low end in ‘developed’ countries. 

Pakistan, according to Peterson, is a country of diseased capitalism, with elements of feudal land ownership and pastoralism.  The drug, arms and human slave trades are prominent.  Recently Pakistan became a majority urban nation, with much industry in Lahore and Karachi.  There is a large and growing proletariat.  The country also has rich agrarian areas in the Indus valley populated by peasants and small farmers, yet dominated by large landlords. While many suffer from hunger, the Pakistani capitalists still export food for profit. 

Peterson went through a history of Pakistan, which has a vast and complicated ethnic and cultural lineage, making it a melting pot of religions and nationalities like much of South Asia.  The Partition of 1947, ordered by the British Raj, is one of the great crimes of history, leading to millions being displaced and more than a million dying.  Peterson claimed Partition led to the biggest movement of humans in history, though some have now claimed that title for the movement of peasants from city to countryside in China.  Lord Mountbatten, Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Clement Atlee all participated in this bloodbath in different ways.  The Communist Parties, as was normal, sided with one nationalist bourgeoisie or another, supporting aspects of Partition.  Partition was based on an artificial line drawn in the soil by the British government - Hindus were to live on one side, Muslims on the other.  The book, “Indian Summer” is recommended as a good book on Partition. 

After ‘independence’ in 1948, 85% of the Pakistani budget was defense spending for that year.  China supported the 1958 dictator of Pakistan as part of their support of various ostensibly 'progressive' national bourgeoisies.  Pakistan fought 3 wars with India, one of the biggest bones of contention being Kashmir, which India now occupies with hundreds of thousands of troops. (See review of “Capitalism: A Ghost Story,” below.  Use blog search box, upper left.) The brutal and long-standing Indian occupation of a section of majority-Muslim Kashmir makes it the biggest occupation in the world.  

Peterson pointed out that the 1968-1969 revolution in Pakistan, especially East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh) was very close to a proletarian victory.  A general strike shut down the country after police shot strikers. 25,000 rail workers marched in Lahore with red flags.  Electrical workers cut power to the government buildings.  Peasants began seizing land, especially in East Pakistan.  The armed forces were wavering in loyalty and the intellectuals and artists were moving to the left. However, the Communist Party supported the regime and did not call for the overthrow of the capitalist system.  Things stabilized with the formation of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Zulfikar Bhutto, a landlord, out of this struggle.  The PPP called for nationalization of industry, armed militias to protect the population and socialism.  However it was mostly words, and the progress towards revolution stopped. Some reforms were achieved until Bhutto was assassinated.

A succession of military dictators changed power with the PPP and the richest man in Pakistan, the head of the Muslim League, who holds power today.  Usually the leaders of the PPP were killed and another election called, the latest being Benazir Bhutto.  The official “Islamification’ of Pakistan started under military dictator Zia ul Haq, who was supported by the U.S. and ruled for 10 years.  Peterson maintained that prior to those efforts to install Sharia law and Muslim fundamentalist principles, Pakistan was not an exceedingly religious society.  So the U.S, as in Afghanistan, promoted Islamic political fundamentalism. 

Peterson described a large congress of the “Struggle” group in Pakistan, affiliated with the Workers International League, which he attended.  He commented on the good humor of these 2,500 comrades in the face of such chaotic conditions.  Poetry, oddly enough to our experience, played a role in the congress.  Peterson addressed the assembled on the situation of the U.S. working class.  The “Struggle’ group has comrades in the trade unions, in the youth organizations, in the women’s groups, among the unemployed, and among entertainers and radio commentators.  They have organized somewhat successful electoral campaigns even in Waziristan, which is the target of constant U.S. drone strikes.   They are in the midst of a campaign against privatization – as the government has decided to hand over 60 industries to private enterprise.  They work inside the PPP as the mass organization of workers in that country.  They have 40 offices, are in 25 regions and have 25 full-timers.  They organized May Day rallies in 60 Pakistani cities, and have a campaign in Kashmir with the Communist Party of India (M) to oppose that occupation.  He mentioned that “Mallala” the girl who was almost killed by Muslim fundamentalists, is a supporter of socialism and once attended a “Struggle” conference.

They call for an ‘irreconcilable struggle’ for a “Socialist Federation of the Indian Sub-Continent,” and work with internationalists in other countries that their comrades have been forced to go to for paying work – places like Afghanistan, India and others.  Peterson observed that while there are some Islamic fascist groups like the MQM who have killed trade unionists and leftists, the hard-right Islamic groups are disliked by the majority of the population and get very small votes.  They have degenerated into criminal thugs who deal drugs  - sort of a ‘Mafia with an ‘Islamic’ cover.   Telling to Peterson was that few Pakistanis stop for the omnipresent 5 prayers a day.  (See also commentary, “Rock The Kasbah,” below.)

Peterson answered questions afterwards and the audience adjourned to talk with beer and snacks and donations for the Pakistan Trade Union Defense Campaign.

And I heard it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
May 10, 2014

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Kill the Masters

Where Is Game of Thrones Going?

Game of Thrones is in its 4th season as a mash-up history of England and Europe, written by a compulsively detailed writer who thinks there are more stories in history than in the imagination.  The War of the Roses, Hadrian’s Wall, the Vikings, the Scots, Venice, the siege of Constantinople, Attila the Hun, Hannibal, Elizabethan pageantry, sexual proclivities and dire wolves are blended with dragons, White Walkers, wargs and black magic, all hovering under the threat of an environmental doom – a dreadful long winter that will last for years.  Lancasters and Yorks become Lannisters and Starks.  The Lannisters are the most powerful because they have the most soldiers and the most money - which should sound familiar.  Hadrian’s Wall grows to 700 feet of ice.  Global warming becomes ‘winter is coming.  These stories are filmed in Morocco, Croatia, Ireland, Iceland and Malta, but all become Westeros or areas surrounding Westeros.  Westeros looks somewhat like England in profile.  The Narrow Sea is really the English Channel, and Europe, Asia and Africa, the outer lands.   

The long-form HBO series has replaced the serialization novels of Dickens and Twain and the tales of Tolkien.  It outlasts normal series TV.  Game of Thrones is now the most-watched serial of them all.  It has been argued that these fiction series are weapons of mass distraction and have rescued corporate television from being a heavily-advertised, trivial wasteland.   Of course, humans need entertainment.  The question is, how much?  It is pretty clear, entertainment is one of the main forms of pacification at present.  Witness the endless delight that the internet takes in every single entertainment issue.

GoT undoubtedly rivets the attention of many because it parallels the political and cultural life we live now.  It embodies the right-wing idea that the ‘family trumps everything’- that one’s bloodline is what matters most – with disastrous consequences.  It shows power to be a bloody goal and war to be an expensive and gruesome game.  Instead of rejecting power, as in Tolkien, it seeks it.  It illustrates the lack of trust in a medieval society where everyone is fair game – a lack of trust which might look very familiar.  There is even an “Iron Bank” that controls the fate of the various kingdoms who rely on it for funding their wars.  In a recent Rolling Stone interview, George RR Martin, the author, reveals he became an opponent of the Vietnam War.  As he put it, he realized Ho Chi Minh was not ‘Sauron” - the villain of the Tolkien series.  Martin, while idolizing Tolkien, thought his view that a ‘good king’ made all the difference was essentially a medieval outlook.  Martin also rejects Tolkien's view that ‘just’ wars could succeed.  For Martin, Vietnam was a prime example, as was World War I & the invasions of Iraq. 

In GoT gender roles are reversed, some women being more cruel than their male counterparts. Cersi Lannister is a reminder of Lady MacBeth.  They lead and rule, not just writhe in bed.  Marriage is mostly a deadly and stale joke.  Gayness and lewdness is naturalized. Yet ordinary peasants and workers are mostly absent from the stories - providing only a background to the celebration of anybody who is cruel, rich or powerful – or a royal.   There is one revolt so far – the townspeople in King’s Landing throw dung at Lord Joffrey - but it is put down brutally.

GoT is not normal ‘escapism.’  In fact, it rubs your nose in beheadings, betrayal, castration, rape, mutilation, bad marriages, imprisonment, slavery, torture and being burnt to a crisp by a dragon’s breathe.  There seems to be no ‘happy ending’ on the horizon.  The “red wedding’ scene is thought to be ‘the most shocking scene in all of TV history,’ as Rolling Stone puts it.  Through all this the humans attempt to survive in a basically amoral universe – unlike the simple duality of Tolkien’s world.  Viewers chose those who they think are the most honest or intelligent – perhaps the bastard Jon Snow, the tiny Arya Stark, the most intelligent Tyrion Lannister, the messianic Daenerys Targaryen or the seemingly lesbian warrior, Brienne of Tarth.  Good people who are naïve come to bad ends.  Characters that were ‘good’ become treacherous – characters that were ‘bad’ become more reliable.  Ramsay Bolton burns Winterfell, a place he called home for many years.  The brutal Hound protects the stupid and vicious boy king of King’s Landing, Joffrey, then denounces him and leaves his service.  Jaime Lannister, who threw a boy off a parapet, crippling him for life, begins to help the brother he detested out of a deadly jam. 

Is there, as Zizek would ask, a force for ‘emancipation’ amongst this bloody mess of warring kings and queens to be?  Martin says he’s not interested in history as ‘sociology’ but only as a source of stories, so this angle mitigates against any kind of progressive resolution.  Some of the Wildlings, who live north of the Wall in the vast reaches of snow and mountain, laugh when Snow bows to them.  “We have no kings,” they tell him.  Bandits who hang around the woods (perhaps like Robin Hood) insist they are trying to stay away from all the kings.  The Khaleesi / Daenerys Targaryen, who has 3 nuclear weapons – ah, dragons – frees the slaves in 3 cities.  Her slogan is “Kill the Masters.”  She tells them that they must do it themselves, and provides weapons, but then they become an undifferentiated mass.  When counter-revolutions break out in those towns, returning the slavers to power (much like the violent return of white rule in the South after the Civil War) she pledges not to abandon the re-enslaved.  So there are forces of emancipation, but they are outnumbered by the kingly Houses fighting for power.  Daenerys Targaryen has the best chance of winning the wars.   Yet we know that Martin does not really believe in ‘good wars.’  Daenerys may not be the savior she is made out to be.

The White Walkers do not fit into an historical comparison however. The White Walkers are some kind of dead zombies, reared from humans, who cannot be killed except by a glass weapon discovered by the corpulent, scared but literate “Samwell”, who bears an eerie similarity to Piggie in ‘Lord of the Flies.’   (Samwise was the name of Frodo’s helpmate in the Tolkien books.)   What do they represent?  Nearly everything else in this series has a parallel to the present – except the White Walkers.  Do they represent a psychological principle?  The fellow travelers of the long winter?  Something to unite humanity, as ‘aliens’ do in most reactionary science fiction?  Do they represent our fear of the unknown or the Other?  The mix of the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’ here loses its force because it loses contact with the real.  It might become apparent, but now it is just a zombie trope – vampires that seem to live off the living. And not by production.

Martin has not finished these books and it is doubtful he will be able to before the series finishes – which might mean they part in trajectory.  The HBO producers may take the series in another direction.  It is also possible, because Martin loves ‘stories,’ that he cannot finish them.  Yet, they will end.  The question is, how can you end something like this?  After all, history does not end. Yet a series must end, like a life.  Most bourgeois fiction does not know how to conclude – it dodges the inevitable, so to speak.  It has no pattern but the past - the future and even the present do not exist.  Martin’s fondness for telling stories and hostility to ‘sociological’ explanations might indicate that Westeros will only continue on as it is – if he has his way.  A post-modern experiment in history, fantasy and politics, where nothing changes at all. 

Related reviews – “Four Arguments Against Television,” and “Bad Boys, Bad Boys” below.  (Use blog search box, upper left.)

P.S. - Some people object to looking at culture, as if culture was outside the purview of socialists.  This is a bit sectarian, much like the view of those who will not participate in the electoral system or who ignore sexism because it is not always about 'class' - etc.  Marxism has a long history of involvement with culture, as no society can live without it.  

P.P.S. - Recently JRR Martin, while looking at the Middle East, compared the fantastical dragons of the world he created to nuclear weapons. 

Red Frog
May 7, 2014

Thursday, May 1, 2014

It’s a Cruel World, After All

"Jude the Obscure,” by Thomas Hardy, 1894-1895

This is one of the greatest ‘old’ books from an English writer.  It was very controversial in its day because of its frank description of the need for sex, its position against religion, its portrait of the sham of marriage and an early depiction of the ‘new’ independent woman.  It also is a view of the class system from the underside.  The key events are not based on the earlier rationalism of Jane Austen, but the urges of the libido, and the more grounded ideas of the working class.  It focused on an ‘obscure’ man in a tragic way – when prior to this only ‘great men’ were allowed tragedy.  Obscure men – like Jude – a baker’s apprentice, then a stone mason, all along an aspiring collegian – were only thought to be good for comedy or melodrama – or as ‘color.’  They were not to be central, and not to be taken seriously.

This book was so controversial in England that Hardy quit writing novels after publishing it, and became a poet until the end of his life.  He later tinkered with the text by making the novel a bit less tough, to somewhat appease his critics.  Hardy grew up in a ‘lowly’ position – a stone-mason’s son, then took up architecture, careful descriptions of which play a role in this book.  Hardy was married but took up with another woman, and they lived together after his first wife died.  He was not able to graduate from college and so some of Hardy’s life is played out in Jude. 

The plot:  Jude is a dreamy orphan who wants to go to Oxford and become an academic.  Instead he becomes a stone mason who works on gravestones, walls and churches like Salisbury Cathedral.  His sexual side is brought out by a pig-farmer’s daughter, Arabella, who seduces him, then tells him she’s pregnant, and forces him to marry her.  She was not pregnant.  Their marriage lasts a few months, then they separate, and she goes to Australia.  He lives in Oxford for a time, self-educating himself to be a scholar. He doesn’t know how to afford the tuition and is eventually dissuaded from entering Oxford by a professor who tells him he’s better suited to his manual trade.  While divorce was legal at this time in England, it seems to have been reprehensible.  Jude tortures himself over his being married when he meets his cousin in Oxford, Sue Bridehead, and falls in love with her.  She is a neurotic, educated and prudish and charms Jude, but marries another, older teacher, Mr. Phillotson, out of some odd sense of responsibility.  At one point in the marriage, she jumps out of a window when her husband accidentally enters her room!  She then leaves the teacher for Jude, and Phillotson is fired by the respectable people as a bad example to the children for letting her go.  Only the ‘itinerants’ in town stand up for him.  Both Sue and Jude finally get divorced, and Sue dreads marrying again.  Jude and Sue live together after Jude drops his attempt to be a preacher and burns his religious texts.  Sue withholds sex until he pretends to marry her to quell the viscous gossips in the small town they are in.  Arabella returns from Australia and tells Jude that indeed he does have a son, dumping off a strange, depressed child at Jude & Sue’s door, which they are happy to take in.

Arabella is a carrier of bad fortune.  Constant movement, murder, suicide, miscarriage, alcohol, religious revival, remarriage and death follow.

The couple are surrounded by conservative neighbors in every town they live in who are aghast at unmarried associations.  Sex is a forbidden topic among the majority.  Both Sue and Jude are too tender for the world, and too over-emotional to survive well.  They have frustrating flaws, like real people.  Sue, who loses her job as a teacher, never gets paid work again and the family travels throughout Wessex in penury.  They are unable to handle the real world, and are ultimately crushed by it. 

Hardy observes that conservative attitudes are dying out.  At one point, Sue says that their ideas on religion and marriage are 50-100 years ahead of their time. And indeed they were.  Marriage and religion are now both dying in England, but class is as strong as ever. 

Here is Hardy on Marriage:
“Weddings be funerals ‘a b’lieve nowadays.” 
“Their lives were ruined …by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: That of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling…”
“I don’t regard marriage as a sacrament.” 
“Marriage … is a sordid contract.”
“…how hopelessly vulgar an institution legal marriage is - sort of a trap to catch a man…”

Hardy on Sex:
“…the human was more powerful in him than the Divine.” 
“…a life of constant warfare between flesh and spirit…”
“…a religion in which sexual love was regarded as at its best a frailty, and at its worst damnation.” 

Hardy on Love:
“Sometimes a woman’s love of being loved gets the better of her …she encourages her to love him while she doesn’t love him at all.” 

Hardy on Religion:
“…religion of some sort seems … not only a luxury of the emotional and leisured classes.”
“The struggling men and women… were the reality… though they knew little of Christ or Minister.” 
“I don’t’ believe in half of them … the theologians, the apologists, and their kin the metaphysicians, the high-handed statesmen…” 

Hardy on Women:
“The woman mostly gets the worst of it in the long run.”

Hardy on Class and College:
“Every successful man is more or less a selfish man.”
“For a moment there fell on Jude a true illumination;, that here in the stone yard was a center of effort as worthy as that dignified by the name of scholarly study…”
“He saw that his destiny lay … among the manual toilers … unrecognized as part of the city… yet without whose denizens the hard readers could not read nor the high thinkers think.”
“I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you,” (Job Xii.3)  Something Jude writes on the wall of the college.   
“He began to see that the town life was a book of humanity infinitely more palpitating, varied and compendious than the gown life.”
“But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires sons!”
“Christminster (Hardy’s name for Oxford) …is a nest of commonplace schoolmasters whose characteristic is timid obsequiousness to tradition.”     

Nearly all men and women … are ‘obscure.’  By making this kind of life central, this book crosses the threshold into modernity.

Red Frog
Happy May Day!  Workers of the World Unite!
May 1, 2014