Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hungary and Neo-Stalinism

“The Ghost of Stalin,” by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1956-1957

This book is a long, dense essay on the Hungarian revolt in 1956, written as it was happening.  Sartre, located as he was in France with its large Communist Party and on the European continent close to events, developed a nuanced view of the rebellion in Budapest.  He took neither a simplistic 'Trotskyist' position or a rigid Stalinist position, but something that was based on the facts of the various stages of the rebellion. He at all times calls himself a Marxist and comes out against the intervention by Zhukov’s Soviet tanks. Essentially, the rebellion first moved from a progressive ‘national communist’ phase that could have been solved by the promotion of Nagy and other CP co-thinkers, and the recognition of certain democratic and national needs.  But then it devolved into a right-wing nationalist and anti-communist phase, principally because of a reaction to the two Soviet Army interventions.  To Sartre, the dating of events is absolutely critical.  On October 23, 1956 the Soviet army first entered Budapest.  On November 4, 1956 it entered again.  Sartre contends that the armed response was a huge error.

After this, Hungary became the 'happiest barracks'
Most defenders of the hard-line in the Hungarian bureaucracy – Gero and Rakosi, even Kadar – saw the intervention as necessary to save the Hungarian worker’s state – principally the socialized property in industry and agriculture.  Sartre points out that most self-identified Trotskyists at the time did not distinguish between the pro-socialist and the pro-capitalist elements of the rebellion.  As such, they had a completely positive view of all events.  The problem with that line is that not everyone in Hungary wanted pro-socialist ‘workers councils.’ 

The Small-holders Party based on rural elements wanted to regain small landholdings.  Sartre thinks this would have been an acceptable temporary compromise to make, a sort of rural NEP, as forced collectivization had not worked.  

But there were according to Sartre, as even exist now, nationalist and fascist forces that wanted a complete break with socialism and a desire to rejoin western Europe.  Victor Orban, the present right-wing nationalist president of Hungary, is a product of those forces.  He first came to prominence in the collapse of the Hungarian workers state in 1989 – the ultimate coda to 1956.  The ‘shift to the right’ in 1956 came out in response to the Soviet Army actions and the failure of the Hungarian CP to fashion a democratic compromise.  Sartre points out that when workers are complaining of poverty, hunger and overwork, it is best not to look away...

U.S. propaganda had hinted that ‘aid’ of some kind would come if there was a rebellion, and many Hungarians resented the fact that this was a lie.  Sartre found no evidence of any material or military support by the West, as falsely claimed by ‘L’Humanite,’ the French CP paper.

To background the Hungarian situation, Sartre has a long section explaining the genesis and development of Russian Stalinism as a product of the rural backwardness and isolation of the USSR.  He in a way justifies it.  He does not see the bureaucracy as a new class and shows how the Stalinists instead created their own technocratic gravediggers after WWII.  Sartre calls Stalinism a ‘relic.’  Sartre shows how the Russian principles of bureaucracy, ‘socialism in one country,’ forced collectivization and heavy industrialization were imposed on the central European ‘people’s democracies’ by Soviet planners, and this was a huge mistake.  These were societies which, except for Yugoslavia, did not have organic workers revolutions, and where socialization and expropriation were imported by the Red Army. 

For example, Tito tried to get Stalin to agree to a ‘common market’ for Yugoslavia, Albania, East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, but Stalin turned it down.   This common market would have allowed the various states to trade for products instead of following a duplicative industrialization. Instead individual state autarky was the USSR’s response to the West’s lucrative ‘Marshall Plan.’  Sartre points out that the relationship with the USSR was never one of being an ‘economic colony’ but it was one of political oppression.  Hostility by the USSR to ‘national communists’ was the result, which helped lead to the ultimately disastrous reactions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in Berlin, in Pozan.

Oddly Sartre, in spite of his being a long-time ‘fellow-traveler’ of the French CP, comes out in this situation for various points in the 4th International’s transitional program – workers democracy, the independence of the trade unions, a united front from below with the Socialist Party workers, the usefulness of allowing tendencies in the French CP.  Even understanding the bureaucracy not to be a class is consistent with the 4th International. He ultimately calls Khrushchev’s intervention ‘neo-Stalinism” (the ghost of Stalin…) and in response calls for de-Stalinizing the French CP.

In hindsight, the 1956 insurrection led to a long period of ‘goulash communism’ in Hungary, which was less politically and culturally restrictive, allowed more travel and included more consumer goods for the working classes than the harsher conditions in East Germany for instance.  This was its real and positive effect, as the bureaucracy realized they could not be as repressive.  Sartre points out that the Hungarian intervention and massacre was an immediate disaster for the Soviet Union on international, political terms.  The suppression by the USSR’s army undermined Communist claims to represent the working class and also its claims for ‘peace.’  As the Russian Czar found out in 1905 in Russia, massacring your own population has long-term consequences.  

British capitalism at the same time in October 1956 was ordering military action, via Israel, against Egypt's decision to take over the Suez Canal from Britain. Nasser was the leader of Egypt at the time.  But since capitalist war-making is so common, no one thinks capitalism is criminal and disqualified as a system, no matter how many times they invade, bomb or make war.  In Hungary and the Suez, we see an imperialist double-standard in the reactions to each.

Presently in the remaining workers’ states, such as China and Cuba, there will be both progressive and reactionary impulses to break the stranglehold of the political bureaucracies, both by proletarians and by capitalist or pro-capitalist elements.  And there will be responses that only exacerbate the problem or responses that will solve it.  Marxists must be able to tell one from another in order to move forward.

Prior posts on present-day Hungary, below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I got it at the library!
Red Frog
January 28, 2018

Friday, January 26, 2018

Victimology, Version XXIV

“Detroit,” film directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal, 2017
This is another hard film to watch.  There are a plethora of films about the Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, which are easy (and deserved) political targets.  Most of the films portray black people or Jews as extreme victims, and that particular view is beloved of mostly white liberals.  This film breaks the mold a bit by moving the scene from the U.S. South or Germany to Detroit, Michigan.  But the central event, the ‘Algiers Motel incident’ as it is known, becomes the exclusive focus of the film.  And this again features terrorized black men, along with two terrorized white women.
Festival of Looting

Given the director and writer also collaborated on “Zero Dark 30” and “The Hurt Locker” – both pro-war or pro-torture films – it seems odd that they chose this topic.  But there is a connection.

The crimes at the Algiers were carried out by 3 racist and hysterical Detroit police and one Michigan Guardsman, passively watched by a black security guard.  3 innocent black men were executed, with a knife planted next to one man’s body by a cop.  The remaining victims were beaten, terrorized and threatened with death in order to get them to ‘talk.’  All this because of a missing starter pistol.  As is to be expected, no policeman is convicted of these crimes, after a trial handled by an incompetent prosecutor.  A $5,000 civil penalty was ultimately paid by one cop.

A familiar story, and one repeated every day in the U.S. to this day, as hundreds of mostly minority people are killed by police every year, with no accountability.

The recent rebellions in Ferguson MO, and later Baltimore, MD against police violence echo back to Detroit and many other rebellions in the 1960s, and even the Rodney King rebellion in Los Angeles in 1992.

So what is wrong with this picture?  If you are tired of politically easy victim films, then looking at the 1967 Detroit rebellion itself might give you a real topic for a film.  Because the issues are far broader than the Algiers crimes. In this film we see Detroit police roughly raid an after-hours club full of black people, including returning servicemen from Vietnam, because they do not have a liquor license.  They arrest everyone.  This example of over-zealous policing against black people infuriates the folks on 12th Street, and the police begin to be attacked.  Later Democratic Party politician John Conyers attempts to quiet the crowd from atop a car, and they will have none of it.  Eventually Michigan Governor George Romney calls in National Guard  and the Michigan State police, both full of white country boys.  From there the film stops looking at the larger story.
Lyndon Johnson then sent in the 82nd and 101st Airborne as part of the 1807 ‘insurrection act.’  Tanks and machine guns were deployed, but the experienced and integreated soldiers were far less violent than the cops and Guard.
Map of Detroit Uprising

The 1967 Detroit Rebellion (which the bourgeois press calls a ‘riot’) was essentially a 5-day confrontation between parts of the Detroit black community and the police. It was spread out in various parts of the city.  It was one of 159 rebellions in black communities that year.   White people also took part in the looting of the predatory businesses located in these neighborhoods.  43 were killed, over a 1,000 injured and thousands arrested, all overwhelmingly black.  Fires burned 2,000 structures.  Basically snipers started shooting at police and later, fireman.   Detroit police broke into many homes and brutalized arrestees and conducted uncontrolled shooting.  Women were molested. Two dozen other cities had simultaneous rebellions that grew out of the Detroit uprising.

Members of various left groups like the Black Panthers, SNCC, Uhuru and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers played a role in the Detroit rebellion, and were strengthened by it.  Even the White Panthers were influenced, as they had their own problems with the police.  This was not some ‘chaotic’ unpredictable event but in fact the logical result of years of oppression of the black working class in Detroit.  Given it spread beyond Detroit, it was clear it was a national problem.  In essence, “Detroit” should have been about far more than the Algiers motel savagery.  The film fails to address that, but instead gives us black people as victims – again.  And individual racists (bad apples) - again.

Odd that even film critics at the NYT get it:

A. O. Scott in The New York Times wrote, "It is curious that a movie set against a backdrop of black resistance and rebellion—however inchoate and self-destructive its expression may have been—should become a tale of black helplessness and passivity. The white men, the decent ones as much as the brutes, have the answers, the power, the agency."  Another NYT critic called it a ‘moral failure.'

It is time that both black directors and white directors finally made actual ‘emancipatory’ films, especially located in the present, instead of deceptive progressive fare placed long ago and far away.  The real target is not individual evil men, but a whole system.  It is not nostalgia that will help us, but the 'now.'
Review of "Zero Dark 30," below


Red Frog

January 26, 2018

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sorry, China is Not Capitalist ... yet.

Two sea changes in world political economy…

April 30 2015
Originally published in Political Affairs

The class struggle is essentially over control of the surplus. At no time is this more evident than during periods of capitalist crisis.

Peoples Bank of China - Not Wall Street
A socialist revolution transfers control over the surplus from the capitalist class to the working class, even though the latter may not rule directly. In Russia, the transfer occurred in November 1917 (and reversed in 1991); in northern Vietnam the transfer took place in August 1945; in northern Korea, in May 1948; in China in October 1949; in Cuba, in the fall of 1960; in Laos, in December 1975. It has also occurred in several others states, including Albania, Yugoslavia, the GDR - states that later fell to counter-revolution, like the USSR. The struggle for power is difficult enough, governing afterwards is even more challenging.

However, following the transfer of power, the new state - backed by its army - can allocate and reallocate the surplus both to address needs of the new social system and to keep unavoidable economic imbalances from ballooning into crises. That ability to reallocate surplus is why economies formed by socialist revolutions are not cyclical, in distinct contrast with boom-bust capitalist economies. But the non-cyclical economies are part of a single world economy; they cannot evade comprehensive challenges -- economic, political, environmental, military, value and others -- until capitalism is no longer a significant force in the world.

Capitalist economies, on the other hand, are regulated by the boom-bust laws of commodity production and exchange elucidated by Marx. The capitalist class and its state do not control a capitalist economy, but the class does appropriate what surplus is generated. The capitalists' one goal in life is their personal enrichment, and maintaining their power and ability to exploit.

The exploiters view their system's periodic busts as crises of 'overproduction' - more commodities have been produced than they can sell profitably. Workers and oppressed experience the same crises as rising unemployment, misery and conflicts.

As mentioned earlier, at no time is the contrast between the two social systems more visible than in periods of crisis. The Soviet Union, for example, grew at a 9% rate through the Great Depression years, while capitalist economies tumbled from crisis to crisis-and to war, including on the Soviet Union.

The first sea change since 2008
The difference between the two systems has led to two sea changes since September 15, 2008. This was when the general crisis of capitalism - which is still unfolding -- openly hit the imperialist center. Although the Chinese state is a product of a socialist revolution, it was not immune to the crisis. Some 24 million Chinese workers producing for export lost their jobs in a few weeks after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG and other Wall Street stalwarts. This was because demand from capitalist countries suddenly collapsed.

 The Chinese state responded with a genuine stimulus program, based on its existing five-year plan. It accelerated several state-controlled projects, including development of rural infrastructure; launched the construction of millions of homes;  the expansion of mass transit in cities all across China; and the development of a remarkable high-speed rail network. (The bullet-train network grew from zero miles at the start of 2008 to a remarkable 10,000 miles today; the trains currently average over 200 miles an hour, with 300mph trains in development.)

China's leadership also mandated that banks direct nearly all loans to projects consistent with the five-year plan and the corresponding stimulus. This meant lending primarily to state-owned and state-controlled enterprises, and cutting loans to private businesses.  (A 'shadow banking' system arose to lend to private businesses, albeit with limited funds and high interest rates.) In just five months after Lehman collapsed, nearly all 24 million workers in China had regained their jobs, and the economy was soon growing at a 9% annual rate.  Unemployment did not skyrocket, and has actually dropped since the end of 2008.

The first sea-change then is the significant relative strengthening of the state sector in China since 2008, and consequently the relative weakening of the private sector.  Inevitably, this has led to heightened resistance from domestic and international exploiters and their representatives.

A second sea change since 2008
After the crisis, tens of millions of workers in capitalist countries also lost their jobs. But the ruling class and its states directed their resources to cover the capitalists' losses and bad debts, not to address unemployment or meet human needs.  In sharp contrast with China, there was a near-halt in productive investment in capitalist countries -understandably, since from the exploiters' point of view, the problem was massive "over-investment" (as in the auto industry), and the resulting losses.  For the capitalists, charity starts at their home - and ends there.

Industrial production plummeted in capitalist countries after September 2008, while unemployment skyrocketed. By March 2009, industrial production in Japan was down 34.2% compared to a year earlier; in the euro zone, it was down 20.2%; in Britain, it was down 12.4%; in the USA, it was down 12.5%. (In China it rose 7.3% in the same period.) Real unemployment in most capitalist countries remains higher today than in 2008. Most jobs that have opened since then are temporary, part-time, low-paying or 'informal'.  Oppressed nationalities, women, youth, unionized, migrant and older workers have been hit especially hard.  Capitalist states' "stimulus" efforts, such as the US Federal Reserve banks' "quantitative easing" programs, have been directed primarily to cover the ruling class's losses and bad debts.

In the US, it has been estimated that the state apparatus (mainly the Fed and the Treasury) has transferred some 18 trillion dollars since 2008 to the ruling class's main properties, especially its banks and insurance companies.

Five years after the crisis of 2008, industrial production had not recovered in most imperialist countries. In 2013, Japan's industrial production was down 17.1% from its 2007 level. (Japan is now in its third consecutive 'lost decade'.)  Industrial production in Europe fell 9.3% between 2007 and 2013. In the USA, industrial production was down 1.2% in the same period. (Production in the US has now slightly exceeded its 2007 level, partially thanks to the enforced destruction of production in Japan, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and other countries.) Furthermore, without China and Vietnam's rapid growth in purchases (imports) from capitalist countries, there is reason to believe that the entire capitalist world would now be in all-out crisis.

The contrast between the US and China since 2008 is remarkable. In 2007, the UN estimated industrial production in China at 62% of that of the US. Four years later, in 2011, China's industrial production had risen to 120% of the US level. (It now almost certainly exceeds 150% the US level; furthermore, UN calculations ignore unequal exchange, which skews estimates of US industrial production upwards.)

On three basic measures of industrial activity -- steel , copper and cement - China's production or consumption nearly equals or exceeds that of of all capitalist countries combined. Even more important, the number of regularly-employed industrial workers in China now appears to exceed that in all capitalist countries combined. (This is in part because informal and self-employment has become pervasive in capitalist industry - construction, even mining and manufacturing.) The large concentrations of industrial workers in China is unparalleled.

The second sea change since 2008, then, points to the significant relative strengthening of the international working class through the five states where it holds power; and the significant relative objective weakening of the world bourgeoisie.  As Lenin predicted, far from reconciling themselves to the superiority of working-class rule, the accomplishments of China, Vietnam, Laos, etc., the exploiters' resistance has only multiplied.

 The question now is how these relative gains in the objective strength of the international working class are used. They can be mobilized to complete humanity's transition from capitalism to socialism, or to maintain the status quo. The latter course will lead humanity to catastrophe.

Why the future of humanity will be written in China
It was once said that the future of humanity would be written in the USA. The two main reasons were the size of 'manifest destiny' America, from sea to Gulf to shining sea, and the superior productivity of labor in the US.  Things have changed.

Today, the overall productivity of labor in manufacturing in China appears consistently higher than anywhere in the capitalist world, rich or poor. (Agricultural productivity remains a major weakness.)  One reflection of this is that China's share of world exports has continued to grow after 2008, even though hourly wages have climbed, and are now eleven times those of Bangladesh, for example and four times those in India.

China's productivity in manufacturing has been achieved thanks to planning; its superior educational system; its unparalleled infrastructure; and its social system's capacity to maintain domestic demand, in sharp contrast with the boom-bust cycles and deepening poverty in capitalist countries.  (The Soviet Union unfortunately did not achieve capitalist levels of productivity.) This, then, is a first reason why the future of humanity will be written in China.

A second reason is that size matters. China's population is over four times that of the US.

A third reason is China's social system, formed by its 1949 socialist revolution, which permits it to plan and allocate and reallocate the surplus to address imbalances and social needs.

The fourth reason, still emerging, is the considerable recent strengthening of Marxism in China. This is reflected in its English-language Marxist journals, such as Marxist Studies in China, the World Review of Political Economy and International Critical Thought, published by organs of the Chinese state or the Communist Party of China; and even more so in the boom in Chinese-language work devoted to advancing Marxism and its application. Marxism inexorably points to the need to complete humanity's historic transition, through comprehensive strengthening of the domestic and international working class, and its conscious unity.

… Guest post by W. Halabi, Communist Party Economic Commission

The rest of the article concerns the key problem of organization and the role of the Communist Parties worldwide. The full article can be found at:  http://www.politicalaffairs.net/two-sea-changes-and-the-most-difficult-problem-in-working-class-political-economy/

P.S. - The most humorous article today in Bloomberg is by Michael Shuman, who titled his commentary:  “What if China is Exempt from the Laws of Economics?”  The title itself (and following commentary) is so self-unaware as to be an example of bourgeois blockheadness.  As if ‘economics’ was not actually political.  As if it was some kind of science and the Chinese are exempt from the laws of this ‘science.’  Almost like gravity.  Capitalist neo-liberal economics is an ideology, not a science.  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-24/what-if-china-is-exempt-from-the-laws-of-economics

Red Frog
January 25, 2018

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Revolutionary Implications of Fiat Money

Modern Monetary Theory - MMT

I don't usually provide links to other articles, but this is not to be missed.  While a bit long and confusing, it essentially points out that our notion of the 'household' as a model for how government spending works is completely ass-backwards.  From this model, it follows that our notion of 'paying' for education or single payer or social security or any other social program through tax revenues is absolutely backwards too.  No household can print money, but the U.S. government, through the private, bank-run Federal Reserve does.  Unless you have a printing press in your basement churning out counterfeit notes, the similarity is non-existent.  The 1971 move to go off the gold standard - 47 years ago - ended that.  Fiscal and monetary policy are actually separate.  Fiat money undermines the whole notion of government debt and 'austerity.'  Private banks also create credit out of 'thin air' onto a computer screen, so there is no reason why a State Bank cannot do the same thing for citizens.

Marxists can use MMT to undermine austerity-minded politicians and the world-wide banking industry...

The Purpose of Taxes Is Not What You Think...

 https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/01/22/behind-the-money-curtain-a-left-take-on-taxes-spending-and-modern-monetary-theory/

By Jim Kavanagh, Counter-Punch 

And I found it on the internet!
Red Frog
January 22, 2017 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Art From the Red Atlantis

“Adios Utopia,” Exhibition of Cuban Art, Walker Art Center, 2018

I am always hesitant when visiting an art exhibit of any country the U.S. is hostile to.  Given the U.S. government’s long history of hostility to Cuba, even ‘enlightened’ curators actually parrot that perspective.  The title itself echoes a bourgeois theme that socialism is ‘utopian.’  The Walker curators used the same word ‘utopia’ to describe a 1960s art exhibit centered around ‘hippies,’ i.e. the same neo-liberal framing of that art show. The huge difficulties faced by Cuba after the revolution can mostly to be put at the door of international capital.  Though having ‘socialism on one island,’ as Che Guevara knew, is impossible and resulted in more problems, especially modeling government on a one-party state.
The 'CCC" - Cuban Campesino Cavalry

At any rate, I do not know what paintings were left out of this show, as the main focus was not on 60 years of all Cuban art, but 60 years of mostly dissident Cuban art. There was a note on one wall that due to U.S. attempts to seize ‘confiscated’ goods and return them back to their original rich owners, some paintings or works were not sent by the Cuban museums, for good reason.

Cuba never had an official art style like ‘socialist realism,’ so Cuba’s influences are freer than the governments who strictly followed Soviet methods.  The exhibit notes that the atmosphere in Cuba changed after 1970, when the USSR gained more influence in Cuba due to the blockade.  At that point, attitudes to art became more narrow.  The show references the misery of the “special period’ after capitalism was restored in the USSR in 1991 and Russian aid and trade with Cuba stopped.  It enforced a depressing poverty on the Cuban people, which had damaging effects.

Nevertheless, the art I saw clearly says that Cuba is still a ‘painterly’ society that values art far more than the U.S., which essentially has no art movements anymore.  For instance, political art has mostly disappeared in the U.S.  This exhibit shows a wide range of Cuban styles, of materials, of methods, of themes.  The small revolutionary art section celebrates the peasants, workers and leaders of the insurrection against Batista.  The dissident materials poke at bureaucratism, long speeches, crushing poverty and hints at escape.

There is an odd display of black and white flags of many U.N. countries.  A large stone sitting on top of thousand’s of real teeth. An outstanding sculpture of a bloodied Marti as a peasant with a machete.  Revolutionary posters and paintings based on bold, mural styles.  Photography showing campesinos on horseback riding to expropriate a U.S.-owned sugar plantation.  Recordings of Castro reciting production numbers made incoherent and numbing. A painting of a ‘cultural’ meeting in which the attendees and leaders are shown in a conformist arrangement of identical individuals, sort of like a Soviet presidium.  Photos of Havana’s crumbling buildings propped up by wooden struts or rusting sugar factories that closed after the Soviet and eastern European sugar markets dried up.   An arrangement of cement blocks representing the walls around Cuba put up by the blockade.  A huge triangular display of abstract revolutionary paintings, with Che at the top.  A film of ‘Mardi Gras” dancers in the streets of Havana.  A photo of a diver ‘attempting to escape’ over the Malecon.
Walker gallery - 'Adios Utopia"
Styles vary.  There was a group of abstract ‘concrete’ painters.  Some figurative art similar to social realism.  Poster art.  Modernist and geometric art.  There were collages and wood and metal constructivism.  Photography and photo-realism.  Grotesque paintings of dead animals.  A boat made of books. 3-dimensional art.  Sly attempts at humor.  All in all a very varied show, showing the breadth of a certain strata of Cuban art.

I am still waiting for the Walker, which specializes in post-modernist abstract art and the terrible version in its ‘Sculpture Garden,’ to have a show of anti-capitalist U.S. art.   Then we can make fun of the capitalist 'utopia.' It should be a long wait.

The Walker is free on Thursday evenings, 5 to 9 PM.  Show runs through March 17, 2018.


Prior reviews of art exhibits at the Walker:  “Hippie Modernism,” “Frida Kahlo" and “Edward Hopper.  Other museums:  Museum of Russian Art “Women in Soviet Art,”  The Hermitage's “Travel Notes - The Hermitage,” The Minneapolis Institute of Art “Discovering American Art Now.”  Uzbekistan’s “Desert of Forbidden Art.” Book reviews:  “9.5 Thesis on Art and Class," “The Marxist Theory of Art.” and Berger’s “Ways of Seeing.” Commentary on the Tate Modern and Banksy's street art: “Art Is Dead” and  “Left in London.” Commentary on art crawls in Minneapolis: “The Minneapolis Spectacle."

Red Frog

January 21, 2018

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Not Just History

"Finks – How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” by Joel Whitney, 2017

This excellent and thorough history is not exactly how the title reads.  On NPR, Whitney had to explain the title perhaps too many times, which indicates that he was not quite happy with it.  Being a ‘fink’ implies being an informer.  Being ‘tricked’ implies that you were oblivious to your role in the ‘Cold War.’   However, while some informed, most of the ‘finking’ was actually being a propagandist for the “American way of life” and accompanying apolitical or anti-communist work.  Going after the left as your ‘cultural duty,’ so to speak. Being ‘tricked’ really works out to pretending not to know where the money was coming from.  Or oblivious to how your work dovetailed with the needs of the U.S. government and the CIA.  Many left and liberal writers were ‘tricked’ into interviews or writing for the CIA-backed and ostensibly ‘apolitical’ ‘Paris Review’, ‘Encounter’ and others – people like Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Bertrand Russell and James Baldwin. But others, especially the literary editors, knew exactly what was going on.
Apolitical Belle Lettres - Courtesy CIA

The CIA under James Jesus Angleton and later, Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, understood that the global class war against the USSR, China and other workers’ states was more than invasions, bribery, funding or assassinations.  It also involved the cultural sphere.  The great reveal of this book is that you come to understand this same culture war in defense of capitalism is still going on.  The crushing of political fiction actually succeeded and goes on to this day.

The ‘great’ names of many intellectuals and writers in U.S. culture show up in this book in one way or another.  It is somewhat disturbing, but shows how culture interlocked in those days.  The main writers fronting for CIA magazines or cultural groups at different times  – specifically ‘Paris Review’ and “Encounter” backed by the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) – were well-known people like Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, William Styron and Stephen Spender.  Nicholas Nabokov, Robert Lowell, James Farrell, Arthur Koestler and the later Richard Wright show up as members of the Congress at various times.  Most of the Western editors hailed from the precious confines of Yale or Harvard, recruited by literature professors, and had extremely privileged backgrounds.  You could say they were doing the intellectual work of defending their class.

The main question is not, was there censorship in the USSR and other workers’ states of relatively benign cultural products.  Or were some American writers actually good writers? The question is, can you oppose censorship or promote good writing while not collaborating with the capitalist state, which is busy committing atrocities around the world through the CIA and others?  These editors and writers could not.

Targets of these intellectuals were leftist and ‘anti-American’ cultural icons like Pablo Neruda, John Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Dwight MacDonald, Erskine Caldwell & John Berger, i.e. cultural figures that did not support U.S. foreign or domestic policy.  This included all Soviet writers, for instance Michael Sholokhov, who wrote “And Quiet Flows the Don.” Even CP-led organizations in the U.S. opposing lynching like the Civil Rights Congress were in the sights of these petit-bourgeois intellectuals, especially centered around the CIA-supported domestic ‘American Committee’ led by anti-communists like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell.  In essence, any deep criticism of “America,’ no matter how accurate, was ultimately verboten.

Whitney looks in depth into the butchered publishing of Boris Pasternak’s famous novel “Dr. Zhivago” by the CIA against the wishes of Pasternak himself.   He discusses the censorship of various writers who fell out of favor with the CIA due to something they wrote. (I.E. censorship cuts both ways.)  He shows how the literary networks established by the CIA gained authors money, subscriptions, jobs, junkets, sales and publicity.  Julius Fleishmann, of margarine, yeast and gin company fame, was a main financing conduit for CIA money into a web of literary magazines around the world, like the British “Encounter” and about 15 others.  Whitney details the relationships between the CIA and other government agencies with the Hollywood film industry, especially Paramount pictures, and how they used censorship even before a film came out. He narrates the changes that came over James Baldwin who wrote for ‘Encounter’ while in Paris, but then realized he was more afraid of U.S. institutional racism than the USSR – especially after moving back to the U.S.  Heavily praised writers featured in CIA publications like William Faulkner eventually sided with the segregationists during the 1960s.  Faulkner even said he’d fight for Mississippi against the U.S. on this issue, though he claims he was ‘drunk’ during that interview.

On the international front, Whitney examines the role of the U.S. funding of Christian Democrats, backing coups and opposing the revolution in Cuba for writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Kenneth Tynan, Tennessee Williams, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Hemingway.  Tynan went into a stuttering anti-communist frenzy over the trials of Batista's poor henchmen.  Hemingway was chased by Plimpton for years for a high-profile interview.  Hemingway had donated money to the Cuban Communist Party and went on an historic fishing trip with Castro and Guevara.  He refused to condemn the support of the USSR for Cuba, unlike Norman Mailer.  Hemingway later committed suicide in Ketcham, Idaho, while under intense FBI surveillance, which some understand played a role in his suicide.

Plimpton’s father was a U.S. delegate to the UN, who later lied to that body about the Bay of Pigs.  CIA-backed Latin American magazines, “Combate” and “Cuadernos” were started, with connections to Norman Thomas of the U.S. Socialist Party, featuring some of these writers.  The CIA tricked the left-wing Marquez into publishing two chapters of “100 Years of Solitude” in their magazines.  As you can see, many of these writers didn’t know who they were dealing with.

Robert Lowell, a mentally disturbed blue-blood poet, was brought to Latin America by the CCF to overshadow Pablo Neruda.  He failed.  Later the CIA tried to blackball Neruda from getting the Nobel prize for literature, picturing him as a Stalinist.  Final vengeance was achieved when Neruda died 12 days after the overthrow of Salvador Allende under suspicious circumstances.  Other writers like Fuentes, Octavio Paz and  Vargas Lhosa were also tricked into writing for the CIA magazine ‘Mundo Nuevo,” along with approved luminaries like Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and Lowell.  Sontag published essays in that magazine arguing against Freudian or Marxist interpretations of literature, which was certainly the CIA line.  When Neruda came for the PEN conference in the U.S., the CIA had already penetrated it in several ways. One of which was tricking Arthur Miller into accepting the presidency over the anti-imperialist writer Miguel Asturias.  All this in the context of continual U.S.-backed coups and assassinations in Latin America.  Whitney includes a long section on GG Marguez’ travails through coups, uprisings and revolutions and the genesis of “100 Years...” and what the CIA did with it.

The book also contains the odd story of Jayaprakash Narayan, a former leading socialist who donated land to India’s landless, in a pacifist and Gandhian gesture. The CIA preferred this to a revolution of landless peasants seizing the landlords’ land. Narayan and others became social-democratic cold warriors opposed to Nehru’s neutralism.   Narayan and his organization were approved by the CIA and their literary magazines, including “Quest,” and “Imprint,’ both published in India.  And the tactic worked, because to this day Indian peasants are the premier living examples of the concept of debt-peonage in the world.  This is where charity gets you.

Whitney throws in some freebies, like how a female Ramparts reporter wrestled the diaries of Che Guevara out of the hands of two CIA publishers, and in the process discovered that Che's execution was overseen by CIA agents. Or how the CIA disrupted underground newspapers through "Operation Chaos."  Or how John Train, who was involved with "Paris Review," ended up doing propaganda work for the CIA in the 1980s in Afghanistan, in league with Muslim fundamentalists like Bin Laden and against the USSR. 

This is one of the key books on U.S. literary history ever written.   It is a bit gossipy, but ties many events of literary life together.  For instance, it should be no secret that William F. Buckley was a CIA tool.  Ultimately the NY Times and Ramparts blew the whistle on the web of literary collaboration with the CIA.  The book relates to the present writing culture of individualist or post-modernist fiction too, as both these trends would no doubt be approved by the CIA, or already have been!  The self-affirming world of ‘in-group’ literature still exists, though now it has been blasted into more fragments, with people like Jonathan Franzen leading the non-political pack.

So the inevitable question is: How many of our cultural outlets are still connected to the CIA?  Magazines -  Film Studios -  Newspapers -  Journals...Educational Institutions...Television stations...

Below:  Prior review of book by John Berger, “Ways of Seeing.”  A review of Sartre’s essay, “The Ghost of Stalin” will be reviewed soon.  Film reviews of virtual CIA films:  “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo.”  Film review of Baldwin’s, “I Am Not Your Negro!” Reviews involving the CIA:  Talbot’s “The Devil’s Chessboard,” films like “American Made” and “Kill the Messenger,” Ventura’s “They Killed Our President,” the local “American Assassination” and Scahill’s “Dirty Wars.” Use blog search box, upper left.

And I got it at the public library!

Red Frog

January 16, 2017

Thursday, January 11, 2018

It Was Supposed to Be a Walk...

‘Red Baker,” by Robert Ward, 2006

Recent working-class fiction is certainly hard to come by in the U.S., but it does have various forms, small as they are.  Political working class fiction is the rarest of all, as we live in a de-politicized country.  A recent book by C.G. Gibbs comes to mind as an example of political proletarian fiction.  Some is lumpen-proletarian, dwelling on really dysfunctional people – the work of Charles Bukowski or Chuck Palahniuk.  Others relate in a realist way to the working-class and their psychological and personal lives in a trailer park or small town, as done by Russell Banks or Richard Russo.  Recent black fiction reliably carries many ethnic and class points, as evinced by authors like Guy Johnson & Toni Morrison.  This book represents another variation – directly related to the impact of blue-collar layoffs, so implicitly political, though touted as being ‘character-driven.’  There is a similar book to this, Iain Levison’s “Since The Layoffs,” but it is a comic novel.  This one is not.

Closed Sparrows Point Steel Mill - Baltimore

Red Baker and all his union buddies lose their steel jobs in Baltimore and the impact of this event forms the basis for all the subsequent mayhem.  Fights, alcohol, pills, racism, stress, anger, infidelity, crime, suicide, loss of identity and respect form the tapestry of their post-layoff lives, as they attempt to survive and find decent paying work.  The period is late 1983, when the local football team the Colts abandoned Baltimore for Indianapolis – a somewhat fitting parallel event.  The fans all yearn for “Johhny U” and the stable, storied past that is over.  This is a period of massive factory closings in the U.S. under Reagan, which continued under Democrats, and it rocked Baltimore and every other industrial city and town.  At that time, it was bi-partisan policy to export work to the South, then Mexico, then China.

 In this book, cheaper but modern Japanese steel under-sells the outdated U.S. Larmel Steel mill, and results in its closing.  No money had been invested by the owners in an upgrade of their means of production and this impacts everyone who works there.                                                                                                                        

Red has a temper and a history, and a massive friend Dog, with a worse temper and heavier unhappiness.  Red was a high-school basketball hero, a respected steel-worker, but after being laid off is now relegated to poorly paying jobs like car parker and garbage collector. Red’s tired but loyal wife Wanda has to find a job at the crab shack waitressing, while his sexual crush Crystal is a stripper at his favorite bar. Red has to endure the humiliations of the 1980s unemployment office, but also the joys of his young musical and basketball-playing son, Ace.  Surrounding him are hostile bar owners, a friendly parking ramp owner, a helpful union officer and a frightening, nose-less homeless man who terrifies Red with his possible future.  The upscale yuppies that populate the Baltimore riverfront and whose Beemers and Mercedes he parks piss off Red, but he can’t really retaliate.  Until he does.


This is the story of a destruction of a way of life and of working-class neighborhoods.  The only solution, like so many, is escape. Dreams of the Sun Belt intrude on the gritty hopelessness of 1980s Baltimore for many.  Lies are a basic way to get by and survive, not some moralistic failure. Alcohol is a familiar form of obliteration, which has its own consequences. Anger must be muzzled. Friends disappear.  Politics is invisible.   

A familiar story for many workers during this time, but still ignored by the literary powers that be.  After all, most NY literature critics or agents have never done anything but push paper. Red, instead, worked on the steel for the car they drive.  Let's decide who is really disposable...

Prior reviews of books with similar topics:  Gibbs’ “Factory Days,” Kolm’s “Night Shift,” Macaray’s “Night Shift – 270 Factory Stories." Use blog search box, upper left.


And I bought it at May Day’s excellent used book section!

Red Frog

January 11, 2018

Sunday, January 7, 2018

CIA Fly Boy

“American Made,” film directed by Doug Limon, written by Gary Spinelli, 2017

You might have forgotten the American-sponsored wars in Central America in the 1980s, but this film will bring them back to you.  This unlikely vehicle stars Tom Cruise, who barrels through this film like a high-flying drunk immune to disaster.   Until he’s not.  He plays a real person, former TWA pilot Barry Seal, who said of himself: “I’m the guy who always delivers.’

The Real Barry Seal
In this film Seal delivers photos, drugs, guns and trainees for the CIA, Manuel Noriega, the Medellin cartel, the Contras and the White House.  He’s like the ‘Waldo’ or ”Forest Gump” or zelig of the Iran/contra scandal, the beginnings of the drug war and the bloodthirsty U.S. campaign against the left in Central America. 

During the film, Seal agrees with the rationale of his confident but idiotic CIA handler, one “Monty Schafer,’ that he is to fight ‘communism’ in Central America by flying a spy plane low over Sandinista military camps in Nicaragua.  He graduates to flying bags of cocaine for Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar by dropping them into the swamps of Louisiana .  The CIA doesn’t mind and moves him to a large hidden airport in Mena, Arkansas, where they set up a contra-training camp and a gun smuggling operation as part of the supply chain. 

For drug smuggling and helping the CIA, Seal is paid millions in bags of bundled cash, which gradually accumulate in his home, barn, yard and all the banks in Mena, Arkansas.  This cash flow ultimately draws the attention of the FBI, who visit Mena and through the stupidity of his wife’s cousin, arrest Seal.  The CIA burn everything related to Seal after they find out what is coming, as the DEA and FBI are not in on the scam.

Instead of long term jail, he is taken to the White House where he meets with Ollie North, who has a plan to incriminate the Sandinistas by getting pictures of them ‘drug trafficking.’  The plan works with one lower official in a picture, but Seal and some Medellin members are also in the pictures due to North’s failure to redact their images.  Seal’s betrayal of the cartel proves fatal.

That is the nuts and bolts of the story.  Seal was actually a long-time CIA asset starting with them during the Vietnam war, so the happy-go-lucky portrayal by Cruise is just Hollywood.  The real Seal might even have had an association with the Kennedy assassination.  But he did have an independent and greedy streak in real life.

For anti-capitalists, what is interesting are some facts from the film.  Arkansas governor Bill Clinton is the one who calls the local DA and gets Seal off from any serious charges.   For his crimes, Seal got 1000 hours of community service!  The contra training camp loses almost half of those who are shipped there, as they run off into the Arkansas woods. They are mostly incompetent ‘cabrons.’   Half of the smuggled guns end up in Columbian cartel hands, not contra camps in Costa Rica.  The CIA is shown to be inept, corrupt and loaded with cash. Your tax money.  Nancy Reagan makes her televised ‘just say no’ speech about drugs and Seal grimaces. The contras run boats of Columbian cocaine to Florida to earn funds.  Manuel Noriega, who the U.S. overthrew in an invasion later over ‘drug trafficking,’ was a CIA asset who traded intelligence on U.S. enemies for CIA money.  The fiction that the CIA does not work in the U.S. is revealed as a lie - again.  And too much cash money, even digital money, is actually a burden for a nice suburban family.  But the wife goes along with it all when bundles of cash start to show up.  As Seals says, ‘Is America a great fuckin’ country or what?”

No matter what you think of preening narcissists like Tom Cruise, this film is a big funny ‘fuck you’ to the Reagan administration, the CIA and anti-communism.  See it!

Prior reviews on books about Latin America or drugs: "Drug War Capitalism," "Kill the Messenger," Galeano's "The Open Veins of Latin America," Scahill's "Dirty Wars," Diamond's "Guns, Germs & Steel," "Building the Commune," "An Anthology of the Writings of Jose Carlos Mariategui," "The Dream of the Celt," "Secret History of the American Empire," "Blood Lake," and "The Damnificados."  Use blog search box, upper left."

And I saw it at the Riverview Theater
Red Frog
January 7, 2018  

Friday, January 5, 2018

The North is not the “Upper Midwest”

"Doublespeak…How Language is Used to Deceive You,” by William Lutz, 1989/2015

I write this while listening to Minnesota Public (Govt) Radio and indeed, you can listen to NPR and see how relevant this book is.  I just heard a ‘newsman’ while attacking Keith Ellison pronounce ‘Antifa’ as ‘An-Tifa’ not “Anti-Fa.” This is to hide the fact the word is a shortened form of 'anti-fascist.'

Newspeak is news-speak.
This book indicates that there are really two languages being spoken at all times – one by ordinary people, the other by various capitalist powers that be.  No, I don’t mean English and Spanish in the U.S., though that plays into it.  Class society doesn’t just produce economic inequality or two justice systems, it also produces two forms of language.  For the majority of the population it churns out verbal garbage, while ordinary people are still attempting to speak clearly.  This garbage consists of various forms of what Lutz calls “doublespeak” – jargon, political rhetoric, lies, goobledygook, obfuscation, legalese and bureaucratese.  Even mispronunciations!    

We are aware of successful and misleading corporate media terms like ‘Obamacare,’ the ‘death tax,’ ‘pro-life,’ ‘collateral damage,’  ‘the Races,’ 'revolutionary,' ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ ‘entitlements,’ ‘tort reform,’ ‘Russiagate’ the “Defense Department,” ‘faith-based initiatives,’ 'fake news,' 'terrorism' and terms like ‘reform’ and ‘change’ in politics.  These terms are the normal linguistic soup the 'news' swims in each day.  But deceptive language exists as a constant practice in capitalist corporate, legal, advertising, education and government sectors too, and there is a reason for this.

The reason is it is ultimately essential to veil or hide what is going on from the general public, as what is happening is actually hostile to the interests of the majority.  So duplicitous doublespeak becomes necessary to any ruling class and its institutions.  Lutz here has collected tons of examples of somewhat fraudulent or deceptive phrases, words and language that basically hide negative events.  This relentless ‘positivism’ is doublespeak’s essence.

Some examples?  Every worker is aware of the euphemisms that businesses use to describe layoffs, firings or speedup. ‘Restructuring,’ ‘downsizing,’ ‘stream-lining,’ ‘reduction in force,’ ‘workforce adjustments,’ ‘headcount reductions’ and the classic ‘negative employee retention.’   ‘Culture change’ is used to describe speedup for the remaining workers. There is even a game called 'bullshit bingo' which gives points to those who hear worthless jargon in a company meeting or read it in a company memo.

Corporate and economic terms seem to borrow from the weather, as negative Wall Street events are described as natural weather episodes.  Watch for terms like 'atmosphere,' 'erosion,' 'economic climate,' 'cloudy future' or even the medical 'plague.'  Losses or bad loans are called ‘non-performing assets.’  Lutz especially attacks accounting firms for their rampant ‘creative accounting’ which fills corporate reports with lies.  This happened both in the 1980s S&L collapses and the 2008 mortgage meltdown.  An Amazon warehouse is called a ‘fulfillment center.’  The workers there are called ‘associates’ or ‘team’ members and are not even ‘employees’ anymore.  Capitalist media like NPR use the same terminology that the corporations use, which is a verbal tipoff that that media is being a megaphone or stenographer, and are not actual reporters.

In the corporate food business, Lutz warns any shopper to beware of advertising words like ‘new,’ ‘natural,’ ‘improved,’ ‘extra,’ ‘fresh,’ ‘clean,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘free,’ ‘good,’ ‘great,’ and ‘light’ because they have no actual factual meanings, nor are they required to have one by government agencies. Advertisers and retailers hope the shopper assumes the meaning.

In the law, it has been long known that the legal systems uses archaic or convoluted terminology on purpose.  Even when attorneys can take CLE’s telling them how to write clearly, these classes makes no difference. Long, complex and obscure paragraphs are the result and many attorneys seem to pride themselves on how bad their prose really is. Of course they are only imitating the dreadful language and sentence-structure used in the laws themselves, which are impenetrable except to trained readers or lawyers with 3 year JDs.

Given this book was written in the 1980s, it covers the lies promulgated by governments around the world at the time.  One was South Africa, which presided over apartheid at the time.   The South African ‘Ministry of Cooperation and Development’ was responsible for managing apartheid, which had nothing to do with development or cooperation. A government minister said: “We do not have censorship.  What we have is a limitation on what newspapers can report.”  Apartheid was re-christened ‘self-determination.’  The “Extension of Universities Act” actually closed universities for blacks, Asians and ‘coloreds.’  And so on. 

As Orwell wrote in the book 1984, ‘war is peace.’  In that vein, Lutz takes the U.S. military to task too.  A ‘vertical insertion’ means a raid from the air.  The “Department of Defense” even needs its own dictionary for its terms.  In Vietnam, mercenaries were ‘civilian irregular defense soldiers.’  Refugees were ‘ambient noncombatant personnel’ and enemies who survived bombing were ‘interdictional nonsuccumbers.’ (!)  A ‘tactical redeployment’ meant a retreat.  A later term, ‘low intensity warfare,’ is described as warfare with little political support.  The invasion of Grenada was a ‘rescue mission.’  The invasion of Panama was an ‘anti-drug operation.’ Later bombing raids and invasions are called some version of a 'humanitarian rescue.' Death and killing are rarely mentioned regarding what U.S. soldiers actually do, in recruiting ads or afterwards.  And so on. 

The ‘bottom-line,’ as they like to say in capitalist economics, is that we are saturated with deceptive language.  Nothing has changed since the 1980s – I think euphemisms have only increased.  The main weakness of this book is the shear volume of terms that Lutz lists, which becomes overwhelming.  You could almost create an Excel spreadsheet instead, listing every term of phrase and its real meaning.  It covers many different areas that will provide almost a dictionary for any area you are most interested in.

Why the header?   
If you notice, weatherpersons and newscasters never mention ‘the North.’  They mention the West, the South, the East, even the Northeast.  But Minnesota/Wisconsin/Iowa/Illinois/Michigan/Indiana, even Ohio, are all called ‘the upper Midwest’ or the 'Midwest.'  On a map, if the Mississippi is the divide between east and west, the 'upper Midwest' would actually be Montana and Idaho - only maybe the Dakotas.  A certainly Minnesota, which is bifurcated by the Mississippi, is the 'linchpin' of the North.  The Midwest would be Colorado or Utah/Nevada.  Sometimes they use weasel words like the 'Great Lakes region,' which is still a downgrade.   They refuse to call the Northeast the North sometimes. They have verbally disappeared the North! I think this is for political reasons.

Prior reviews or commentary that deal with language issues:  Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” Chomsky’s “The Manufacture of Consent,” commentary “There is Only One Race,” Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster…,” Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” Zizek’s “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?” the book Fashionable Nonsense,” Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 5, 2018