Archive for October, 2013

JFK fifty years on: What Marxists need to remember

Monday, October 28th, 2013

This article was published in Solidarity.

In about a month, the world will remember the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy fifty years ago – on 22 November 1963.

It’s easy to predict how the media will play this – people will talk about where they were when Kennedy was shot, there will be some speculation about what might have been had he lived, the old conspiracy debate will resurface, and there will be lots of film footage of the American Camelot, with the President’s photogenic family once again put on display.

The Left is likely to engage in a bit of myth-busting and no doubt articles will appear about the dark side of Kennedy, his role in starting up the Vietnam war, his ruthless opposition to the Cuban revolution, and his relatively weak commitment to civil rights.

Both accounts will leave something to be desired because the reality is, as always, a bit more complex than that.

While all the negative criticism of the Kennedy administration will be based on fact, one almost needed to be around in 1963 to get why everyone was so upset when he died.

I should qualify that: not everyone was upset. The far-right lunatic fringe in America, including the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, was not upset at all. They considered Kennedy to be a Negro-loving liberal from the north, someone who was “soft” on Castro and who was willing to sign a nuclear test ban treaty that would weaken the “Free World” in its fight with Communism.

But the people who today we’d consider essential for any progressive coalition politics in America – the Blacks, Hispanics, young people, union members – were all deeply affected by the killing.

It wasn’t just the horror of seeing a relatively young man (with an even younger family) cut down brutally in his prime, though that played a role – as it did a generation later when Diana died. There was more to it.

The American folk singer Phil Ochs, who famously trashed mainstream liberalism in some of his songs, had a soft spot for Kennedy. In his song “That Was the President” he writes of the assassination, “it seemed as though a friendless world had lost itself a friend.”

In the liner notes to the album that song appeared on, Ochs wrote that his Marxist friends couldn’t understand why he’d write such a song. And he added – that’s why he couldn’t be a Marxist.

It would be a pity if Marxists fifty years on can’t understand what Phil Ochs could about the tragedy of Kennedy’s death.

The point is not that Kennedy would have stopped the Vietnam war from getting any more serious, or that he would have wound down the Cold War a generation earlier, or that he would eventually have passed the civil rights laws that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, got through.

Oliver Stone and others imagine a different decade, with a second Kennedy administration taking on the Military-Industrial Complex and the white racist Southern politicians, in a way that he hadn’t done in his first term. I don’t think these fantasies help us understand the Kennedy years at all.

Instead, it’s important to remember the context in which Kennedy was elected, the tremendous sense of relief progressive Americans felt at the end of eight years of the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, with the McCarthy era now fading into memory. The March on Washington with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech took place only weeks before the killing in Dallas. Millions of people thought that, as another folk singer of the time put it, “the times they are a changin’”.

It was a time of enormous hopes, hopes that would be dashed by the end of the decade.

But those hopes were very real in November 1963.

Workers rights are human rights – take a stand now!

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Huber Ballesteros is a Colombian trade union leader jailed for leading strikes and protests – show your support by sending a message today to the Colombian government demanding his release – click here.

The Korean Teachers Union faces deregistration by the South Korean government because it refuses to accede to government demands that it bar from membership teachers who’ve been sacked (often for union activism) – protest today by sending a message to the South Korean government – click here.

The United Nations is supposed to be a beacon of human rights, but Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he no longer recognizes the UN’s own staff unions and won’t negotiate with them – tell him what you think – click here.

Victor Crespo is a port worker trade union leader in Honduras whose life was threatened by gun-wielding thugs and has been forcibly exiled from his country – demand justice from the Honduran government – click here.

Stay tuned … tomorrow …

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013
Courtesy of:

Daddy war sicher kein Nazi

Monday, October 14th, 2013

This article appeared in Jungle World.

Ed Miliband hatte eine gute Woche. Obwohl die britische Labour Party in Umfragen seit Langem führt und es so aussieht, als könnte sie die Konservativen bei den Wahlen 2015 besiegen, gilt Miliband selbst oft als schwacher und unsympathischer Vorsitzender. Er hatte eine gute Woche, weil die rechte Boulevardzeitung Daily Mail, die einen großen Teil der Agenda der Konservativen zu bestimmen scheint, sich dazu entschieden hatte, einen äußerst beleidigenden Artikel über seinen 1994 verstorbenen Vater zu veröffentlichen, den marxistischen Gelehrten Ralph Miliband. Dieser war der Sohn polnischer Juden in Belgien und floh 1940 vor den Nazis nach Großbritannien. Anhand ausgesuchter Zitate aus seinen Schriften, inklusive seinem Tagebuch als Teenager, brandmarkte die Daily Mail ihn als Mann, der »Großbritannien hasste«. Der Artikel führte zu einem öffentlichen Aufschrei – und zur Unterstützung Milibands. Sogar Premierminister David Cameron meinte, Ed Miliband habe recht, den Ruf seines Vaters zu verteidigen. Die Zeitung verweigerte eine Entschuldigung, gab Miliband jedoch Platz für eine öffentliche Antwort.

Diese konzentrierte sich unter anderem auf den Freiwilligeneinsatz seines Vaters während des Zweiten Weltkriegs bei der Royal Navy, mit der er auch am »D-Day« teilnahm. Der Subtext seines Artikels lautete, dass die Daily Mail, deren Unterstützung des Faschismus in den Dreißigern allseits bekannt ist, sich besser davor hüten sollte, die Vergangenheit aufzuwärmen. Einige Kritiker, wie der ehemalige Labour-Vorsitzende Neil Kinnock und der Kolumnist des Guardian, Jonathan Freedland, bemerkten einen »Hauch von Antisemitismus« in der Affäre. Ein altes antisemitisches Vorurteil sei, so Freedland, dass »Juden in Wirklichkeit einem anderen Herrn als ihrem Land« dienen. Die Vorwürfe der Daily Mail gegenüber Ralph Miliband, er sei nicht nur untreu gewesen, sondern habe sein Land gehasst, stünden in dieser antisemitischen Tradition. Ed Miliband selbst bezog sich nicht darauf, dass die Vorwürfe antisemitisch seien. Er ist weder ein sehr öffentlicher jüdischer Politiker noch gilt er als besonders proisraelisch. Sein älterer Bruder, der ehemalige Außenminister David Miliband, sprach sich freimütiger gegen antiisraelische Aktivitäten aus. Ihre Mutter, Marion Kozak Miliband, ist hingegen eine bekannte Antizionistin und Gründerin der Gruppe »Juden für Gerechtigkeit für Palästinenser«.

Stalin’s Great Secret?

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

This article appears in Solidarity – please post any comments there.


This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the drafting of a letter which revealed one of history’s greatest secrets. Or maybe not.

The letter in question is dated July 12, 1913 and is signed by Colonel Alexander Eremin, head of the Special Section of the tsarist Department of Police. Writing from the police headquarters in St. Petersburg, Eremin informs a captain in the distant Siberian town of Yeniseisk that one of the revolutionaries who has just been deported to his jurisdiction is, in fact, a former police collaborator.

The agent’s name is Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili – better known to us today as Stalin.

According to Eremin, Stalin began giving information to the police following his 1906 arrest in Tbilisi, continued working for them in Baku, and then again in St. Petersburg. By the time the letter was written, Stalin had broken from the police following his election to the Bolshevik Central Committee.

The problem with Eremin’s letter is that no one knows if it is genuine.

The letter first surfaced, apparently, in the 1930s and there is reason to believe that Trotsky saw it, or knew of its existence. But Trotsky chose to reject the view – then widely held – that Stalin had probably been a double agent.

In the mid 1940s the letter surfaced again in New York, having been passed around among White Russian emigres.

It was finally published in 1956 as a front cover story in Life Magazine, followed up by a book-length treatment by journalist Isaac Don Levine. Levine had authored the first English language biography of Stalin a quarter century earlier and considered the letter to be genuine.

Most scholars disagreed.

Within a few years, the letter was largely forgotten – in the West.

But when Mikhail Gorbachev suddenly opened up Soviet society to a measure of free discussion and debate in the 1980s, the letter resurfaced as Russian historians resumed the discussion of Stalin’s early career and possible role as a police spy.

Having studied the history of the letter for several years, my own view is the same as that of historian and diplomat George F. Kennan, who said that the letter is “one of those curious bits of historical evidence of which it can only be said that the marks of spuriousness are too strong for us to call it genuine, and the marks of genuiness are too strong for us to call it entirely spurious.”

Among the aspects of the letter that raise the possibility that it is genuine is the extraordinary story of Stalin’s 1906 arrest in Tbilisi, today the capital of Georgia.

Most accounts of Stalin’s life, especially the officially-sanctioned Soviet ones, made no mention of such an arrest.

But one place it is mentioned is in Trotsky’s own unfinished biography of Stalin, which was published at about the same time as Levine and the White Russians began their quest to get the Eremin letter published.

Trotsky’s book – which rejects Stalin’s possible role as an informer – nevertheless includes a chronology and notes his 1906 arrest, one of several that marked Stalin’s career as a revolutionary.

Trostky himself didn’t write the chronology – his translator did. But it is almost certainly based on Trotsky’s own notes.

If Stalin was arrested in 1906, it was probably at the time of the police raid on the underground printing press in a Tbilisi neighborhood called Avlabar. Like nearly everything else in Georgia at the time, this would have been a Menshevik-controlled press. Stalin was one of the very few Lenin loyalists in that region of the Russian empire.

But this was a time when Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were forced to work together, and shortly after Stalin learned of the location of the Avlabar press, the police closed it down, making many arrests. Stalin may have been the one who tipped the police off.

If Stalin was one of those arrested, and if he took up an offer from the police to become a collaborator, he would have been swiftly released. This would have awakened suspicion, and would almost certainly have been covered up.

Over the years, several biographers of Stalin – admittedly, a minority – have accepted that the circumstantial evidence of Stalin’s collaboration with the police is overwhelming. But hardly any of them believe that the Eremin letter is genuine.

A century later, one might ask if it matters.

I think it does. For many decades, many on the revolutionary left – probably most – accepted that Stalin was a genuine communist with whom one might have disagreements. Some went so far as to say that once in power, Stalin even committed violations of socialist legality. The Trotskyists of course went further and accused him of betraying the revolution.

But what if that betrayal pre-dated the revolution by a decade or more?

In the end, Stalin created a police state that made the tsarist police seem like amateurs. His half-dozen escapes from prisons and exile under tsarist rule became impossible once he was at the helm of the Russian state. He learned the lessons well from a poorly organized political police; the GPU and NKVD of his era were far more efficient and ruthless than their tsarist predecessors.

Stalin, it may turn out, was not a genuine revolutionary who was corrupted by power. He may well have been corrupted by weakness, a young, fearful man in the clutches of the police, accepting an offer that he could not refuse.