Archive for the ‘Hidden history’ Category

Reflections on the Overthrow of Communism

Michael Parenti (2009)

Michael Parenti maintains that the Soviet Union didn’t collapse of its own accord in 1991 – that it was overthrown by the US and their allies.  He details the US-backed coup undertaken by Boris Yeltsin’s in 1993 when the Russian parliament refused to approve his extreme market-based reforms. Parenti also discusses the extreme misery Wall Street elites and the State Department inflicted on the Russian people in the effort (prior to Putin’s rise to power) to transform their country into a third world sweatshop. He highlights the massive increase in gang inequality and crime, and the increase in gender inequality (as the right to maternity leave, day care, divorce and abortion were stripped from the Russian constitution), sexual harassment, domestic violence and murder of women by their husbands.

The US Left’s Virulent Anticommunism

Parenti freely acknowledges that Soviet citizens sacrificed civil liberties for economic democracy, ie a society in which all citizens are  lifted out of poverty and enjoy free health care and education, subsidized housing and public transport and an absolute guarantee against brutal exploitation. He contrasts this with life in the US, where working people enjoy neither economic democracy nor civil liberties. He’s also scathingly critical of the American left (he mentions Noam Chomsky by name), which is much more virulently anti-communist than their right wing counterparts.

He goes on to detail serious weaknesses of the Soviet system, which he believes contributed to its demise. Overall he feels the Soviet economic system suffered from an absence of independent analysis. While Karl Marx offers a thorough critique of capitalism, he has no counterpart to critique the socialist/communist model.

The Human Nature Debate

Where Parenti and I part company is is contention that “pure socialism” (ie total abolition of the state) is impossible. He makes the argument that if workers run everything, it’s impossible to accumulate enough surplus value to finance an army to 1) to break the stranglehold of the capitalist class and 2) to defend against counter-revolution. He also maintains a state is necessary to protect against the greedy, acquisitive nature of human beings.

These views are also contradicted by decades of sociological research that human beings (like all primates) are hard wired to be social animals and naturally inclined towards cooperation and interdependence (see Human Nature: Cultural or Genetic. There is also strong evidence that much of the greed and antisocial behavior that characterizes the capitalist system stems from traumatic child rearing styles.

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Suffragettes: The Fight for Votes for Women

Edited by Joyce Marlow

Virago Press (2000)

Book Review

This is a somewhat unconventional account of the 100 year battle British women fought to win the vote. As it relies on letters, diaries and newspaper accounts, it brings to light the individual personalities of various suffragette leaders and men who supported them. It also highlights interpersonal and political conflict that arose in the movement.

Much of the dissension arose because of class differences – often the solidly upper middle class leadership was out of touch with the thinking and needs of working women. There were also splits between women who engaged in property destruction (window breaking, fire setting and bombings) and those who advocated non-violence.

Prior to finding this book I was unaware of Queen Victoria’s absolute opposition to equal rights for women, nor the brutal and punitive forced nasogastric feeding imposed on suffragettes in prison. In their struggle to be recognized as political prisoners (and for general improvements in prison conditions), the women frequently engaged in hunger strikes when they were arrested.

It would be 1928 before British women finally won the right to vote on the same basis as men (at age 21). The Franchise Bill they fought for (and won) in 1918 only allowed women to vote when they reached age 30.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Michael Parenti (2012)

Film Review

In this presentation, Michael Parenti discusses the fraudulent history we are taught about the late Roman Republic. In particular, he focuses on the popular resistance movement that led to the rise of the Populares in the Roman senate in the second century BC. The revolt of the Roman proletariat was largely a reaction to the privatization of Rome’s collective agricultural lands as latifundia (plantations owned by Roman aristocrats). Historically there was no private land ownership in Rome until thugs hired by aristocrats drove the peasants off their land around 200 BC.

Parenti starts by demolishing the myth promulgated by mainstream historians that Rome was a republic. The Roman senate was a self-appointed oligarchy. For the most part Roman senators paid no taxes though. Instead they loaned money at interest to the Roman government (sound familiar?). The lower classes, in contrast, were heavily taxed.

The first great Populares to serve as consul was Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. He and his brother Gaius, who succeeded him, fought for land reform to break up the latifundia and redistribute them to the landless. Despite their aristocratic background, all the Populares consuls challenged a Roman economic system that was rigged in favor of the elites All were assassinated by aristocratic death squads.

Julius Caesar would be the last Populares consul, and he, too, would be assassinated in 44 BC. Among the reforms he enacted were

  • Lowering interest and fines on debts
  • Building exceptional public libraries to be used by all Roman citizens
  • Guaranteeing freedom of religion to Roman Jews
  • Ending the practice of forcing people with unpaid debts into slavery
  • Introducing a democratic constitution
  • Creating state jobs in Rome and the colonies for the unemployed
  • Ending Cicero’s* witch hunts and extrajudicial executions

The aristocrats in the senate, who detested Caesar because he threatened their wealth and privilege, responded by labeling him a brutal tyrant and assassinating him. Ironically the emperors who succeeded him were far more tyrannical. Yet the senate aristocrats supported them as they protected their wealth and privilege.

What strikes me most about this presentation are the clear parallels with the current period, with the liberal elite and intelligence establishment portraying Trump as an unspeakable fascist tyrant based on little evidence other than his rhetoric. I’m aware that much of the liberal establishment is justifiably frightened of the ultraconservative bent of Trump’s appointees. However most of the strident anti-Trump rhetoric seems over the top to me.

For me the two main ways the parallels break down are 1) the absence of a genuine reform movement from below similar to the Roman resistance movement that led to the formation of the Populares 2) the absence in Trump of the towering intelligence, charisma and military and political ingenuity that Caesar displayed. Trump’s lack of political experience raises the vital question whether he or his conservative cabinet will be in control. Despite his promise of numerous populist reforms, I’m extremely skeptical whether the prominent conservatives in his cabinet support them.

Haiti: We Must Kill the Bandits

Kevin Pina (2007)

Film Review

We Must Kill the Bandits carefully documents the systematic war crimes committed by US, Canadian, French and UN forces between 1990 and 2005, as part of the US-led effort to destroy Hait’s pro-democracy Lavalas movement.

In 1990, former Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who headed the Lavalas movement, was elected president of Haiti by a virtual landslide. In 1991, the CIA-backed Haitian military high command undertook a coup against Aristide and forced him into exile in Africa. Shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton intervened and allowed Aristide to return to Haiti. After Aristide was re-elected president in 2001, US marines illegally invaded Haiti on February 29, 2004, kidnapped Aristide and forced him onto a plane bound for South Africa.

The poor of Haitai immediately responded with weekly protests demanding Aristide’s return. When the Haitian police and army proved incapable of propping up the US-installed puppet government, US, Canadian and French troops occupied Haiti, routinely rampaging through poor neighborhoods slaughter civilians and arresting suspected Lavalas supporters. Owing to their existing military commitments in Iraq, these forces were eventually replaced by UN peacekeeping forces (Blue Helmets).

The most shocking scenesein the documentary are those of Blue Helmets firing on peaceful demonstrators and killing unarmed civilians during massacres they carried out in poor neighborhoods in 2004 and 2005.

Postscript: The documentary ends in 2005, five years before the devastating earthquake and cholera epidemic that hit Haiti in 2010. In 2011, President Obama allowed Aristide to return to Haiti provided he agreed not to run in the 2011 presidential elections. He refrained from participating in political life until 2015, when he joined the presidential campaign of Lavalas candidate Maryse Narcisse.

 

coming-struggle-for-power

The Coming Struggle for Power

by John Strachey

Victor Golancz Limited (1932)

Free download link: The Coming Struggle for Power

Book Review

In The Coming Struggle for Power, British historian makes the prediction (writing in 1932) that capitalism is in its death throes and will end by 1950. He was wrong, obviously. Strachey had no way of predicting the tremendous boost monopoly capitalism would receive from Cold War military spending, nor the “financialization” (the shift from selling products to selling financial instruments) that would happen in the 1970s.

The book is largely historical, tracing the transition all global economies underwent from feudalism to mercantilism (large scale international trade) and from mercantilism to capitalism. In Europe both transformations were violent. Strachey points to the Rebellion of 1640 (during which Charles I was beheaded) and the Revolution of 1688 (in which James II was overthrown) during the feudal-mercantilist transition. The Enclosure Acts of the 18th century marked the mercantilist-capitalist transition. During this period British troops drove tens of thousands of families off lands they had farmed communally for more than 1,000 years – with most ending up in prisons and work houses.

Strachey also stresses that neither the French Revolution nor the American Revolution was really about political freedom or equality. The real purpose of both wars was to end old feudal relationships that interfered with the right of the new capitalist class to freely produce, buy and sell goods at a profit

The Inevitable Decay of Monopoly Capitalism

Strachey takes the Great Depression of the 1930s as evidence that capitalism has reached its final stage of monopoly capitalism. Quoting Lenin, he lists the three telltale signs that monopolistic capitalism has begun to decay:

1. The monopolistic corporations that control finance capital (ie banks) essentially merge with the monopolistic corporations that control production.
2. There’s growing focus on exporting capital (ie moving factories overseas).
3. National governments, which are essentially controlled by their monopolies, are in constant conflict with one another over who will control the resources, markets and cheap labor of the Third World.

Gee, this sounds familiar. The parallels with 2017 are uncanny.

The Inevitable Rise of Fascism

Strachey also writes about the important role of fascism in end stage capitalism. The declining profits and growth (ie stagnation) associated with end stage capitalism inevitably lead to reduced wages, poorer working conditions and a claw back of social welfare benefits enacted during more productive periods. This, in turn, leads to more conflict between workers and capitalists. Ensuring that production continues during a period of heavy stagnation necessitates the rise of fascism, in which the capitalists themselves organize workers into right wing populist movements which enact laws unfavorable to working people.

How Capitalism Stifles Intellectual Life

For me, the most interesting section of The Coming Struggle for Power concerns the stifling effect of corporate capitalism on intellectual life. Emphasizing the narrow ideological framework capitalism imposes on intellectuals, he devotes one chapter each to religion, philosophy and science and two to literature.

Because “capitalist” theologians and philosophers are limited to value systems that support profit taking and wealth accumulation, humankind has made absolutely no progress in 200 years in leading more moral and ethical lives. This stifling effect is also obvious in the areas of renewable energy technology (people forget Carter had a solar panel on the White House in 1979) and health science. At present, the profit motive has distorted health care to the point that many medical interventions actually make people sicker.

Africa

Directed by Basil Davidson (1984)

Film Review

Africa is a 1984 documentary exploring the great civilizations of Africa. In it, late historian Basil Davidson demolishes the myths Europeans concocted about Africa to justify the 400 year slave trade – these myths concerning a continent of subhuman savages persist to the present day. Davidson reviews archeological evidence, ancient African and Europeans artwork and historical records and contemporary tribal traditions that survive from past civilizations.

The documentary is divided into 8 episodes of approximately 25 minutes each.

Episode 1 Different But Equal – studies the depiction of blacks in medieval and renaissance European paintings to show how the concept of race was created in the 16th century to justify the immensely profitable enslavement of human paintings. He starts with an examination of cave paintings that point to a highly advanced Saharan civilization prior to the Sahara’s desertification (around 7,000–8,000 years ago   and the prominence of black-skinned the 3,000-year  civilization Egypt enjoyed under the pharaohs.

Episode 2 Mastering a Continent – focuses on Kushites and the great Nubian civilization to the south of Egypt. The latter converted to Christianity and persisted until the 11th century when it was destroyed (by Saracens) during the Crusades.

Episode 3 Caravans of Gold – discusses the vast commercial trade network (extending as far as India) centered in Timbuktu (Mali) and the Ashanti civilization (in modern day Ghana). In the 14th century, Mali converted to Islam. Under the guidance of Muslim scholars, Timbuktu became a global center of Islamic scholarship in law, literature and science.

Episode 4 The King and the City Within – describes the civilizations of Huaser, Benin and Ethe in modern day Nigeria.

Episode 5 The Bible and the Gun – covers the arrival of the Europeans and the devastating of slavery on long established African civilizations. Over 400 years, the African continent lost approximately 15 million skilled craftsmen and farmers. As the slave trade declined in the 18th and 19th century, Europeans opened up Africa’s interior in order to exploit its rich natural resources. As in Latin American and Asia, Christian missionaries played a fundamental role in this process.

Episode 6 The Magnificent African Cake – gives an overview of the extensive European military campaigns that flattened African resistance to colonization. By 1914, Liberia and Ethiopia were the only two countries not under European military control.

Episode 7 The Rise of Nationalism – relates how forced conscription in World War I and World War II radically changed Africans’ view of Europeans and fueled demands for independence. The Gold Coast (later renamed Ghana by President Dr Kwame Nkrumah) would launch the first independence struggle in 1945. Davidson contrasts this with the more bloody independence struggles in Kenya, Algeria and other countries with substantial(European) settler populations.

Episode  8 Legacy – explores how the adoption of European-style Parliamentary systems proved disastrous for many African countries. Davidson blames this on the fact that Parliamentary government is based on a well established class divisions. It worked poorly in Africa owing to the continent’s historic tendency towards egalitarianism.

 

negroland

Negroland: A Memoir

By Margo Jefferson

Granta Books (2015)

Book Review

Negroland is a memoir by theater and book critic Margo Jefferson about growing up in the American Negro aristocracy in the 1950s. Far more than a memoir, the book carefully chronicles the history of Black America’s elite professionals, academics and business people. For the most part these families are descended from the children of white slaveholders, from ancestors bought and freed by slavery-hating whites, from ancestors descended from free Negroes (non-slaves) or ancestors who bought their own freedom with hard work and cash.

These ancestors, in turn, used their wealth and privilege to ensure their own children pursued higher education and professional or academic careers. Prior to the 1970s they also used their wealth and privilege to found clubs, organizations and charities to improve the conditions of less privileged African Americans.

Jefferson’s father was a pediatrician and prior to marriage, her mother a social worker. As a member of the tiny African American aristocracy, which Jefferson refers to as “Negroland,” Jefferson grew up with very suffocating rules of refinement that were far more strict than those applied to white women. Living daily with ubiquitous mainstream racism, Jefferson came under heavy criticism (mainly from the women in her family) for drawing attention to herself with flamboyant dress, activities or talk, with “ashy” elbows or knees or poorly straightened hair that became “frizzy” in damp weather.

Jefferson writes poignantly about the identity crisis she experienced when her upbringing was challenged by the Black Power movement of the 1970s. It was at this point she realized how the pressure to assimilate to white society had isolated her from fully embracing her African American history and culture. She also suddenly became aware of the unwritten Negroland rule against experiencing or acknowledging feelings of depression. Owing to concern that emotional weakness would reflect unfavorably on the entire race, members of the Negro aristocracy were expected to power their way through depression with duty, obligation and discipline.

In Negroland, Jefferson achieves a good balance between subjective experience and a historical/cultural backdrop that helps us make sense of it. I highly recommend the book for its excellent depiction of a sadly neglected aspect of US history.

Originally published in Dissident Voice