Sunday, March 25, 2018

From the archives:
A critique of Stalin's 1913 essay on 'Marxism and the National Question'

[The following is an edited version  of an article that was written for a discussion inside the U.S. socialist organization "Solidarity" in 2005. I'm republishing it here in response to comrade Tim Horras (of the Philadelphia socialists) commenting very favorably on 1930s writings by Harry Haywood, a Black leader of the Communist Party, USA, who advocated Black communists oppose what Haywood called "petty-bourgeois nationalism" in the Black community. I disagree completely with those politics. The nationalism of the oppressed should be supported; the nationalism of the oppressor must be fought.

[I want to stress that this has little or no bearing on the Stalin-Trotsky disputes (between the mainstream pro-Moscow communism of the 1930s and later, on the one hand, and the dissident communists who looked to Leon Trotsky, on the other).]

One of the biggest sources of confusion in the Marxist movement on the national question is the 1913 Bolshevik pamphlet, “Marxism and the National Question.”

Although authored by Stalin, it has been looked to by pretty much the entire spectrum of the Communist left – including Trotskyists -- as an authoritative text.

What is a nation?

The heart of Stalin’s pamphlet is generally perceived to be his definition of “nation”:

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.(Emphasis in the original).

It is undoubtedly true that Stalin's pamphlet reflected the views the Bolsheviks at the time, and in reality, of much of the international current that Lenin called "revolutionary social democracy."

But I believe a reading of Stalin's pamphlet shows that it was a rigid and formalistic presentation of that position, and, at any rate, one that is today solely of historical interest, very much circumscribed to the European experience before World War I, dealing with it inadequately even then, with dubious politics for those days and with no political value for today.

Are Blacks a nation?

I'm not really very concerned with the right “definition” of the term “nation.”1

That Blacks don't fit what’s been accepted as this “classic” Marxist definition of “nation” only shows that the classic definition is inadequate.

It is a goofy idea that somehow, because the Black community did not adjust itself to Stalin’s or the Bolshevik’s definition, we have “proved” that Blacks aren't a separate and distinct people, and therefore all revolutionary internationalists, and above all those from the white American nation, aren't absolutely duty-bound to support the struggle of Blacks as a people for their liberation by whatever means Black people themselves choose.

Because the truth points to itself. Black people are what they are, a separate and distinct people with a strong sense of self-identity in fighting for their liberation.

To say, sorry, but colonialism and imperialism have scattered you so much that you really don’t have a common territory or a fully developed class structure internal to the Black community and therefore you don’t qualify as a nation and don’t have the right to self-determination, that is a capitulation to imperialism and white supremacy via academic pedantry.

Moreover it highlights what is missing from Stalin’s definition that is central to understanding “nation” and the politics of the national question, and that is the subjective side of the question.

Basically, a community or population is not a nation until and unless it conceives of itself as having a common political project or destiny.

For example, Cuba existed as an island and a colony for hundreds of years before the consciousness emerged among these islanders that they were a separate and distinct people, something which as a widespread phenomenon did not take place until the early 1800’s.

And it wasn't until the second half of that century, under the impact of the antislavery revolution in the United States (so-called Civil War) that Cuba’s first War for Independence (known as the 10 year’s war) broke out, and it broke out as a struggle both for political independence and to abolish slavery.

Is nationalism always bourgeois?

But the problems with the analysis Stalin presents and the politics that flow from it are more important than the inadequacies of his definition.

Stalin says national movements are proper of the epoch of rising capitalisms. They are always bourgeois movements, in essence, moves by the bourgeoisie to consolidate a “home” market.

This described perfectly the historical evolution as rising and spreading capitalism overcomes localism and feudal divisions.

But he overlooks that what he is describing in his days is already a struggle between two “nationalisms,” that which he ascribes to the belatedly “rising” bourgeoisie, i.e., the nationalism of the oppressed nation, and the one he does not see, because he himself was infected with it to some degree, the nationalism of the bourgeoisie that has already risen, the nationalism of the oppressor nation.

He says even when other classes are drawn into a national movement, "In its essence it is always a bourgeois struggle, one that is to the advantage and profit mainly of the bourgeoisie."

He says, sure we're for self-determination, but that mostly as a way of trying to win workers away from nationalism, which is “always bourgeois.” And here he means the nationalism of the subjugated nation, for the nationalism of the subjugating nation for him does not exist.

What does exist is merely a “policy of national oppression,” which passes over into “a ‘system’ of inciting nations against each other, to a ‘system’ of massacres and pogroms.”

And he adds, “‘Divide and rule’ – such is the purpose of the policy of incitement.”

Thus his political prescription.

Noting that the 1905 Revolution and its temporary democratic conquests had awakened to political life the nations and nationalities oppressed by Tsarism, Stalin counterposes the class struggle of workers against bosses to the struggle for national liberation of these oppressed peoples.

Fighting ‘a wave of nationalism’

“The wave of nationalism swept onwards with increasing force, threatening to engulf the mass of the workers. And the more the movement for emancipation declined, the more plentifully nationalism pushed forth its blossoms.

“At this difficult time Social-Democracy had a high mission – to resist nationalism and to protect the masses from the general ‘epidemic.’ For Social-Democracy, and Social-Democracy alone, could do this, by countering nationalism with the tried weapon of internationalism, with the unity and indivisibility of the class struggle.”

To translate it to American terms, racism is a trick the bosses use to divide the workers: the strategic axis of a revolutionary policy is “Black and White, Unite and Fight!”

But the truth is that much more than “divide and rule,” was involved, and the policy was and remains inciting oppressor nations against oppressed nations. The tsarists weren't inciting Jewish pogroms against Russians. And by this way of formulating the question, “inciting nations against each other” what he is doing is putting an equals sign between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed.

Stalin's pamphlet is completely blind to the nationalism of the oppressor. Consider this passage: “But the unity of a nation diminishes not only as a result of migration. It diminishes also from internal causes, owing to the growing acuteness of the class struggle.

“In the early stages of capitalism one can still speak of a ‘common culture’ of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. But as large-scale industry develops and the class struggle becomes more and more acute, this ‘common culture’ begins to melt away. One cannot seriously speak of the ‘common culture’ of a nation when employers and workers of one and the same nation cease to understand each other. What ‘common destiny’ can there be when the bourgeoisie thirsts for war, and the proletariat declares ‘war on war’?”

August 1914

Stalin's article is dated January 1913. In August, 1914, it was seen that all his claims that there was no "common culture" in the already developed, capitalist (in reality imperialist) nations between the working class and ruling class were false.

European social democracy's leaders, with a few, very few, honorable exceptions, rallied each to the defense of “their own” fatherland. There was no “war on war” but rather abject capitulation to the bourgeois nationalism of the imperialist powers, which Stalin never even mentions.

Why was Stalin unable to see it? Because at that time neither he nor the rest of the Bolsheviks understood imperialism, whose central characteristic is the division of the world between a handful of exploiting, oppressor nations and a big majority of exploited and oppressed nations, colonies, and peoples.

For Stalin, “national oppression” was mainly a policy deployed to divide the working class. Just as he did not see the nationalism of the oppressor he also didn't see the privileges of the oppressor nation, nor the super-exploitation of the oppressed.

How mistaken Stalin was is shown by his own summary of his political approach:

“The fate of a national movement, which is essentially a bourgeois movement, is naturally bound up with the fate of the bourgeoisie. The final disappearance of a national movement is possible only with the downfall of the bourgeoisie. Only under the reign of socialism can peace be fully established.

“But even within the framework of capitalism it is possible to reduce the national struggle to a minimum, to undermine it at the root, to render it as harmless as possible to the proletariat. This is borne out, for example, by Switzerland and America. It requires that the country should be democratized and the nations be given the opportunity of free development.”

What does this say? That Stalin and his friends didn't get it. They had absolutely no clue!

No greater proof of it can there be than that “America,” that blood-drenched white-supremacist European crime against humanity constituted as a colonial settler regime based on stealing half of Mexico, on genocide against the Indians, on the enslavement and lynching of Blacks, and on the imperialist domination of the rest of the hemisphere is held up as an example of … national harmony! Of rendering the national question “harmless.”

As if!

Fortunately when the cluetrain made its stop in August of 1914, Lenin did take delivery. All this utopian poppycock about reducing the national struggle to a minimum, undermining it at the root, rendering it harmless – which in practice become really just so many ways of telling oppressed people not to struggle as a people against “my” imperialism --  were rejected by Lenin.

Support to national movements

The policy of trying to win the workers of oppressed nations away from the national movements was replaced by a policy of wholehearted, unconditional support to the national revolutionary movements of oppressed peoples against imperialism, which was now seen clearly, not as a divide-and-rule “policy,” but as a new stage of capitalism.

In that framework, the workers of the oppressed nations had to be organized to vie with the bourgeoisie for leadership of the national movements; and the workers of the oppressor nations had to be trained in their internationalist duty to aid the colonial movement against “their own” nation.

Contrast Stalin’s –- and the Bolsheviks’ -- 1913 approach with that of Lenin in 1920, at the Second Congress of the Comintern, presenting his “Theses on the National and Colonial Question” (which, be it said in passing, recognized the question of “Negroes in America” as a national question, like the Irish question.)

“What is the most important, the fundamental idea of our Theses? It is the difference between the oppressed and the oppressor nations. We emphasise this difference – in contrast to the Second International and bourgeois democracy....

“Imperialism is characterised by the fact that the whole world is now divided into a large number of oppressed nations and a very small number of oppressor nations that are enormously rich and strong in the military sense.... This idea of the difference between nations, their division into the oppressed and the oppressors runs through all the Theses....”

“I would like to emphasise the question of the bourgeois-democratic movement in the backward countries.... We debated whether it is correct in principle and theoretically to declare that the Communist International and the Communist Parties have a duty to support the bourgeois-democratic movements in the backward countries, and the outcome of this discussion was that we came to the unanimous decision to talk not about the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ movement but only about the national-revolutionary movement.

“There can be no doubt of the fact that any nationalist movement can only be a bourgeois-democratic movement, because the great mass of the population of the backward countries consists of the peasantry, which is the representative of bourgeois capitalist relations.... But objections were raised that, if we say ‘bourgeois-democratic’, we lose the distinction between the reformist and revolutionary movement which has become quite clear in the backward countries and the colonies recently.... [W]e believed that the only correct thing would be to take this difference into consideration and to replace the words ‘bourgeois-democratic’ almost everywhere with the expression ‘national-revolutionary.”

Returning to Marx and Engels

I want to add one more thing, which is that the politics outlined in the Stalin pamphlet were no just thrown completely overboard by the Bolsheviks during and after World War I. Those prewar politics were also not the politics of Marx and Engels. Quite the contrary.

For example, Stalin denounces "the segregation of the workers according to nationality" in the working-class movement.

But in 1872, when the Irish workers within England were called to task before the General Council of the First International for forming separate Irish branches, and a motion was put that this violated the rules of the International, and refusing to submit to the British Federal Council, Engels rose to their defense.

He based his political approach on what Lenin also eventually come to see as central question, the difference between the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor, and defended the former while denouncing the latter.

Engels on ‘true internationalism’

Citizen Engels said the real purpose of the motion, stripped of all hypocrisy, was to bring the Irish sections into subjection to the British Federal Council [of the International], a thing to which the Irish sections would never consent, and which the Council had neither the right nor the power to impose upon them...

“The Irish formed a distinct nationality of their own, and the fact that [they] used the English language could not deprive them of their rights... Citizen Hales had spoken of the relations of England and Ireland being of the most idyllic nature... but the case was quite different. There was the fact of seven centuries of English conquest and oppression of Ireland, and so long as that oppression existed, it would be an insult to Irish working men to ask them to submit to a British Federal Council.

“[The motion] was asking the conquered people to forget their nationality and submit to their conquerors. It was not Internationalism, but simply prating submission. If the promoters of the motion were so brimful of the truly international spirit, let them prove it by removing the seat of the British Federal Council to Dublin and submit to a Council of Irishmen.

“In a case like that of the Irish, true Internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinct national organization, and they were under the necessity to state in... their rules that their first and most pressing duty as Irishmen was to establish their own national independence....”

One more thought.

In defining “nation” or talking about the nationalism of the oppressed, yes, even 100 years ago and certainly today, any definition that doesn't place the material reality of imperialism and imperialist domination, oppression and exploitation at the center of it has got to be wrong.
1Some people make a distinction between a “nation” –a fully formed nation -- and “nationalities” as well as “national minorities.” Thus a “nationality” is a nationlike community of people but that lacks some of the characteristics of a fully formed nation; a “national minority” is a fragment of a nation’s population outside the “national” territory.

These are useful distinctions, but I mostly do not employ them in this article as they are not relevant to what I am addressing, which is our overall political approach and stance towards oppressed peoples (whether you would consider a given instance a fully formed “nation,” a “nationality” or “national minority.”)

PA congressional contest: it wasn't about 'moderation' but about class

The usual TV talking heads and dead-tree scribblers from the liberal commentariat are all bloviating about the just-concluded contest to represent Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, which Hillary Clinton had managed to lose by 20 points to Donald Trump.
Lamb: played the class card, not the 'moderate' scam

The claim is that Conor Lamb's victory shows that to win in the fall, Democrats need to run militarized, prosecutorial tariff-supporting, gun-toting, right-to-lifers, Republicans lite.

"Lamb, 33, a handsome (and clean-shaven) military veteran, was straight from central casting and had no extensive political record to contradict stances so moderate and squishy that he could be mistaken, well, for a Republican," said columnist Frank Bruni in the New York Times.

So you'll be surprised to learn that as far as I can determine from Conor Lamb's campaign material on YouTube and the Internet, the axis of his campaign was not Washington litmus-test, left-right issues but class. As in working class.

What tipped me off that the Wall Street media was perhaps being less than 100% honest was listening to Lamb's election-night victory speech on MSNBC, which Brian Williams  interrupted after a couple of minutes.

Of course, it must have been a mere coincidence that Lamb had just begun talking about defending Social Security and Medicare. Because the broken news that Brian Williams delivered was that he and the rest of the press had no clue as to who had won the election. And what could possibly outweigh the urgency of the media's own cluelessness?

But it made me suspicious because I worked for 21 years at CNN and know Brian Williams was ordered to interrupt by the line producer talking in his ear from the control room, and the line producer was ordered to do so by higher-ups outside the control room.

The interruption purportedly was to make clear NBC News had not "called" the race for Lamb even though he had been introduced as congressman-elect from the podium. But if the anchor or the producer had thought it necessary, that would have come right after the intro, during the applause, or if that chance was missed, once Lamb finished speaking, not 2 minutes and twenty seconds into his speech when he'd just gotten to the meat. Nobody --not even Brian Williams-- has such bad news judgment.

So I searched for an uncensored version of Lamb's speech.

What does Lamb say he is for, how does he identify?

1) He is for Social Security and Medicare.
2) He is against dark corporate PAC money and did not have to take any thanks to some 86,000 (mostly) small donations.
3) He is proud to have been supported by, and to support, the union movement. His victory is part of the unions regaining their rightful place and influence.
4) He will work to make jobs and pensions secure.
5) He learned in the marines: "leave no one behind."
6) He inherited being an FDR democrat from his grandfather.

Here's another example of the same censorship, from Amber Phillips on the WaPo's political blog "The Fix."
Conor Lamb launched an ad over the weekend that makes him sound more like a Republican than a Democrat. He is campaigning on the fact that he won't support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for House speaker if Democrats win back the House in November. 
“My opponent wants you to believe the biggest issue in this campaign is Nancy Pelosi,” Lamb said in the ad. “It's all a big lie. I've already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don't support Nancy Pelosi.” 
Even though Lamb has said he won't support Pelosi, so powerful are Republicans' Pelosi attacks that he felt he needed to shout about it in this ad.
Phillips stopped there, so, can we can assume that ad keeps on attacking Pelosi? Well, here's how Lamb continued:
The real issues are the ones that affect your lives. I'll protect Medicare and Social Security. My opponent would cut them. I'll protect health care and education. My opponent won't. My opponent will work for the special interests that are spending millions to elect him [over a newspaper clipping of 1.5 million in PAC money backing the Republican] .
The ad ends, "I'll work for you."

I leave aside that not being a Pelosi fan boy hardly makes you a Trump acolyte.

The plain fact is that Lamb centered his campaign on class identity.

Not on Pelosi and certainly not on abortion, guns or tariffs, the issues that the columnists and talking heads insist were key to establishing his "moderate" acceptability to the supposedly die-hard Trumpeteer voters of the district.

As for those issues, during his campaign he waffled.

On abortion: as a Catholic he is personally against but doesn't think the government should ban it.

On guns: He is for common sense gun control but against taking people's guns away. And likes to shoot.

On Trump's tariffs, this article claims both Lamb and his opponent supported them, but all it has are just garden variety declarations in support of protecting jobs and fair trade.

The more you look the plainer his campaign strategy becomes. Subtle it ain't.

His first TV ad says he went to a Catholic High School, college, was a marine (and "still loves to shoot," a safe way of not saying anything about gun control), was a prosecutor and now he's running for Congress.


"To fight for jobs, health care and social security." And "he's the only candidate that's refused corporate PAC money."

As for his much-touted opposition to Nancy Pelosi, the ad says he is also "the only candidate who says Democrats and Republicans need new leaders in Congress."

That may sound like a capitulation to gain Republican anti-Pelosi voters, but much more plausible is the suggestion that he wants to establish himself as independent from the Clinton party establishment. You know, like that Bernie guy.

And he attacked another congressional leader by name: House Speaker Paul Ryan. It is in a single-issue ad which starts "Paul Ryan will use term 'entitlement reforms' to talk about Social Security and Medicare as if it is undeserved or some form of welfare. But it's not any of those things. People paid for it." And it is Lamb himself that is speaking, not some off-camera voice of God.

My argument is not that Lamb is trustworthy, a working-class hero, Eugene V. Debs reborn or even a Sanders-wing Democrat.

It is simply that he did not run and he did not win by identifying as a "moderate" or "blue dog" Democrat, but as a working class Democrat.

The axis of Conor Lamb's campaign was class, which is at right angles to the left-right political spectrum that is the only thing the capitalist media understands or is willing to talk about.

Friday, January 26, 2018

One more iteration of "X" is ruining America and poisoning its youth

One advantage of being on Medicare but not yet senile is that you're old enough to remember previous iterations of "whatever" -- in other words, the moral panic that the media and the politicians are pushing this week.
Today's bette noir is social media in general and Facebook in particular. Although that company is trying to clamp down, still many people are writing whatever they want on Facebook,undermining the company's efforts to help the government tell us what to think. Now, I know a lot of you are saying, "first amendment" but that's just wrong. The Constitution guarantees freedom of SPEECH, not freedom of WRITING (nor does freedom of the press cover it, since that belongs only to those who own one). So thus we have Marc Benioff, a tech company CEO, who told the World Economic Forum in Davos that Social networks would be regulated “exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry.” “I think that, for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive, and we need to rein that back as much as possible,” he added. You know, I heard the same thing about long hair on boys and AM radio on NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report in 1964 after the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Later I discovered that the NBC news hacks had plagiarized old stories about Elvis Presley's hip swaying and Chuck Berry's guitar playing and just changed a few names. And over the years we've had both media (television, 8-track tapes) and content (folk music, hip hop) blamed for juvenile addiction. Along, of course, with the perennial triumvirate, sex and drugs and rock and roll. [And the utterly American bat-shit crazy collective hysterias, like the child care centers that engaged in Satanic ritual abuse that sacrificed children to drink their blood, etc., in the 1980s and1990s. [And, yes, it happened and, yes, people were accused, tried found guilty and sentenced. The main difference with the Salem witch trials of the 1690s being that after three centuries, we did not hang people for witchcraft, just sentenced them to prison until they died of their own accord.] So who is this Benioff character that is channeling network news anchors from half a century ago? The boss of Salesforce, which peddles "customer relations management", socalled "solutions." Which is why, I suspect, he's thinks Facebook is so dangerous -- because instead of listening to whatever his outfit is putting out on behalf of its client, we might ask our friends about some product. In other words, the modern incarnation of the noble race of door-to-door fuller brush salesmen. And its not just Benioff. "A string of Silicon Valley heads have spoken out in recent months about their fear that social media could be more psychologically damaging than anyone expected," reports the Guardian. You know, just like Elvis's hips and that pinko commie plot, Sesame Street. This would be hysterically funny except that in a country so farkled as to have Donald Trump become president after he lost by three million votes, anything is not just possible, but actually happens. All the time.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Ping-Pong diplomacy revisited: The two Koreas Olympic love-fest

The lightning negotiations and cooperation between North and South Korea for the Olympics is being compared to the emergence of a bromance between President Nixon and Chairman Mao in  1971, almost a half-century ago.

Ping-pong diplomats: Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan
In the midst of the Vietnam War which had dominated international relations and domestic politics for years, a chance encounter between Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan, two participants in a table tennis tournament in Japan, and the resulting friendly exchanges between the two stars, one an American, the other Chinese, led to the Chinese to inviting the American team  to come on over and stage a few exhibition matches.

After 22 years of American refusal to recognize or even say "hello" to the government of China the contact over a few ping-pong games led to an official Nixon state state visit a few months later.

China's motive --to break its isolation-- was obvious, but how could this be with a rabid anticommunist like Nixon in the White House?

Well, it turned out that Nixon was not the character he'd been portraying in the soap opera of American electoral politics. But mostly, it was about the American defeat in Vietnam.

Defeat? Yes, defeat. War is the continuation of politics by other means. And the United States had been  politically defeated despite its overwhelming economic and military superiority.

Ping-pong diplomacy broke out in April of 1971, and here's how Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., one of the most highly regarded American military historians, described the situation in Vietnam in the Armed Forces Journal in June of 1971:
The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.

By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having _refused_ combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.... 
"Frag incidents" or just "fragging" is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs....

Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.

In one such division -- the morale plagued Americal -- fraggings during 1971 have been authoritatively estimated to be running about one a week.
Remember, this is a full-bird colonel, one step below a general, describing in real time the state of U.S. forces in the middle of a shooting war. Implicit in this description was not just defeat, but the danger of a mass rebellion or mutiny by troops in Vietnam and perhaps all over the world.

Basically, ping-pong diplomacy was about the Chinese taking advantage of the desperate situation of the United States in Vietnam to break Washington's economic, diplomatic and political blockade against them.

Russia also took advantage of this situation, through detente and deals to reduce military spending on things like nuclear bombs and ICBMs.

What both Moscow and Beijing could offer was to pressure North Vietnam to accept some sort of peace deal that Nixon could use to pacify antiwar public opinion and (hopefully) avoid an openly catastrophic defeat in a shooting war. Of course, little they cared that, as Che Guevara had explained, from a revolutionary perspective, Vietnam's fight was more important right then than either country's advancement of their economic and diplomatic goals, even if quite legitimate in and of themselves.

When politicians, gasbags and scribblers recall 1970s ping-pong diplomacy as the model for the rapidly escalating rapprochement between North and South, there's more than surface amity.

The United States has put itself in a no-win situation in the Korean peninsula. Since the end of World War II Washington has relied on its military superiority. Trump thought he could use bluff and bluster to score another "win" (I don't believe he cares about the outcome beyond "proving" the incompetence --or worse-- of previous administrations). He thought with America's "military might" he would succeed.

He is acting the same way he did in business, where it led  his projects to multiple bankruptcies, forcing him eventually to become a reality TV star and "luxury brand" to (mostly foreign) suckers. Another Kardashian, but without the name or looks.

On the other hand Kim Jong-un played Trump like a violin in the hands of a concertmaster. He understood that Trump's posturing, bluffing and bluster would disrupt the united front against North Korea, and took advantage of it with a very public mad dash to obtain a nuclear deterrent, or at least a credible appearance of having one.

He understood there was nothing Trump could do about it without at least seeming to put South Korea and Japan on the brink of annihilation, as well as possibly provoking a response from China or Russia, both of which have land  borders with North Korea.

And Kim had an ace up his sleeve: the victory in South Korean elections of a party that has promoted better relations and mutual economic entanglement with the North. Not because this party is composed of angels, but its leaders reckon that given the South's overwhelming economic superiority, it had everything to gain by bringing North Korea under its wing and reducing American influence over the peninsula..

Having established --or at least convinced everyone-- of his capacity for nuclear retaliation, Kim now plays the "can't we all just get along card" with exquisite precision: on the eve of the Olympics and with a moving gesture --Koreans of the North and South marching together under the same banner-- that will bring a tear to the eye of everyone save the most hardened cynic.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Late Season's Greetings: No Merry Christmas, no Happy New Year

[I wrote this on December 25. I didn't post it then, but after shithole and Hawaii ... ]

There was no Christmas in my house this year: nor in my heart.

I've spent hours and hours meditating on how I felt thirty years ago, and how I feel today.

Because then I was on the verge of despair. As I am today.

As 1987 came to a close, I was still in Managua, absorbing the collapse of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. Few on the left then even saw it, but somehow, pretty much as long as I'd been in Nicaragua I'd not been able to close my eyes to countless problems even though I trusted --more than that, I was convinced as a matter of religious faith-- that no matter how battered and bloodied, the Revolution would win through.

But by the end of 1987, I'd finally admitted to myself that it wasn't true. The essence of a people's revolution from below [not "regime change" from above] is the organized movement of masses of regular people trying to take control of society to forge a better future. In Nicaragua, by the end of 1987, that movement was dead. The militias, unions, associations of farmers and women and students were all hollowed-out shells rapidly being transformed into nests of bureaucratic privilege. I was losing my religion,.

After the truth became undeniable a couple of years later, many on the left blamed the Sandinistas. I did not. The poorest country on America mainland with an adult population about 1% that of the United States was unable to withstand Washington's onslaught, especially after the Soviets stabbed them in the back, refusing to provide the promised planes and choppers that the Sandinistas needed to fight the contras, and Western Europe provided only token, symbolic help.

The Nicaraguan revolution was drowned in the blood of the war, asphyxiated by the economic crisis it produced. But worse, its heart was ripped out by the way it was condemned to solitude, left twisting in the wind. There were many things that the Sandinistas did that people considered mistaken and debilitating. And there was an overriding question of the growing indications of the demoralization of the revolution's leadership, the FSLN.

And I don't mean just or mainly fighting spirit, although there was that too. I mean a loss of integrity and honesty, the taking of privileges that, minuscule as they may have seemed, simply devastated the trust of the population in the Sandinista Front given the desperate economic situation most people faced.

I left Nicaragua having made two interconnected decisions: that I would abandon politics and journalism.  I did then, at least for a little while but I went back to both, thinking the Cold War is over, we are living in a new world.

What has that to do with today?

The feeling of dread, that what we feared might come to pass has already become inevitable, that the ghost of Christmas future is here not to give us warning and a chance of redemption, but to mock our stupidity, especially the idea that we are "the resistance."

It's been more than a year since Trump achieved a majority in the slaveocracy's electoral college even though he lost the election by three million votes.

It is time to stop pretending that he doesn't know what he is doing, that he is alienating "our" allies or that he isn't accomplishing much on account of Congress.

It may all be an act or he may quite sincerely be delusional and even psychopathic. But you are what you pretend to be.

He acts as if he actually believes the United States is in a war of all against all, and "we" have been betrayed by "our" leaders who were trying to get along with many other countries instead of insulting them, threatening them militarily and confronting them economically.

I don't think there's a concept in current political discourse more wrong headed than that Trump is just playing to his base, throwing them a little red meat, protecting his narrow slice of the electorate and similar drivel.

What Trump is doing is to cohere a mass movement that is unconditionally loyal to him. He is doing so by constantly projecting himself as the sole embodiment of "America First," and saying the problems "regular" Americans face are due to betrayal, to treason.

He is not running for re-election, he is campaigning to become America's Putin -- actually, worse.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fidel and I, and a nation unforgiven

[I wrote this on Facebook a year ago, right after Fidel's death, and meant to publish it here, but never did. Reading commemorations from Cuba on the first anniversary of his death, I was struck by several that spoke about Fidel's leading Cuba now, in the present tense, not the past. Then I realized I understood without even thinking about it.]
Fidel: his truth is marching on.
Over the past few days many people have asked me what I thought of Fidel's death. I've done a few press interviews, and to my surprise, I found it difficult to formulate an answer, and I think I've finally figured out why.
I was a 7-year-old Cuban kid from a millionaire family who had no clue everything in his life would be upended by the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
And I was an increasingly rebellious Cuban exile adolescent in Florida in the late 1960s who did not recoil when he realized he was being increasingly attracted to the ideals of Fidel and Che.
I did not realize then, I could not possibly have known, that these circumstances would shape the rest of my life.
Yet they have, and they should not have. That is my reaction to the news about Fidel.
Decades ago, the Cuban revolution --and with it the figure of Fidel Castro-- should have receded from politics into history. It took 20 years, give or take, for the United States to accept the reality of the other great revolutions of the 20th Century, the Russian, the Chinese and Vietnamese. The old disputes were negotiated and settled: "borrón y cuenta nueva," we Cubans say, wipe the slate clean and start over.
But it never happened with Cuba.
Donald Trump will become the twelfth American head of state to preside over the economic blockade Eisenhower initiated as part of the preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Yet the great majority of those that fought at the Bay of Pigs are now dead. Those of us who have even the vaguest childhood memories of those days are now on Medicare. Isn't it time to let go?
It was time to move on decades ago. But we can't. The blockade --the economic war against Cuba-- still goes on. The forcible, violent occupation of part of Cuba's national territory still goes on. And the insistence of the Americans that they --and not Cubans-- have the right to decide Cuba's fate goes on.
What Fidel did was to head the fight for the Cuban people's right to self-determination. That, not socialism, not being pals of the Russians, not helping to wipe South African apartheid from the face of the earth, was his greatest crime.
And that crime could not have been anything but the collective crime of the Cuban Nation. So even a death certificate with his name on it cannot expiate it. And even with his body in ashes he remains in the fight.
Fidel hasn't died because the Americans won't let him. Even now, the United States will not accept that they could not break him, or the Cuban people. And until they do accept it, Fidel will remain part of the fight.
Even in death, he remains unforgiven. The battle he fought, that he dedicated his life to, remains unresolved. His people, the Cuban people, remain undefeated.
Some day I will reflect on Fidel's death, perhaps in mourning of his passing or in celebration of his life. But that day will come when the battle he still leads is won.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The tax cut that's really needed --
but neither party will talk about it

No one --including the Schumer-Pelosi Democrats-- is talking about the one tax cut that should be made as a matter of basic fairness: excluding social security payments from taxable income.

Nancy and Chuck: getting ready to sell out the middle class
Why? Because that money has already been taxed when you earned it and the government took it out of your paycheck. That's true also of the tax on the employer. From the point of view of the company, what "they" pay is simply part of the cost of having you work for them, same as if it appeared on your pay stub. In fact, the main category for company bookkeeping is not "wages" but "payroll" which includes the taxes and the cost of benefits that do not appear on your paycheck stub.

The other part of the social security trust fund are interest payments on the bonds the government theoretically sells the trust fund when it takes social security tax money and uses it for other things, mostly wars and toys for the generals.

But aren't government bonds tax free? Exactly. Rich people pay no federal income tax on the interest from bonds they voluntarily buy from the government, whereas regular people pay tax on the interest from government bonds when the income finally comes to us in the form of social security payments.

And government bonds at all levels have paid much lower interest rates than they would have had to pay if the federal government didn't give itself an automatic "loan" from the social security trust fund.

If Congress is going to talk about cutting taxes, stopping the double taxation of seniors' social security payments should be the first item on their agenda. Social Security payments are way too low anyways: the average is about $1,300 a month, and they are being cut through the "raising the full retirement age" scam.

The first step in fixing social security should be to exclude social security benefits from taxable income.