Monday, November 20, 2017

An excellent debunking of a notorious rightwing "fake news" item

Amanda Robb has done an excellent article on the "Pizzagate" fake news and accompanying panic that is a great example of fact-based debunking, Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal Rolling Stone 11/16/2017.

The article is "reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. based on a joint project with The Investigative Fund and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting." Reveal has a series of podcasts available, including one on Pizzagate, which provides additional reporting.

The Pizzagate story could never have been taken as seriously as it was or gotten spread to the extent it did if everyone were applying one of the most basic rules of reality-testing: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Claiming the Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile lesbian child prostitution ring out the basement of a pizza parlor qualifies as an extraordinary claim. Alex Jones ranting about it on YouTube or a chain email from your goofy cousin do not count as extraordinary proof.

The "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" is one that the Skeptical Inquirer journal has long promoted in debunking pseudoscience. They generally don't emphasize political topics except when its unavoidable in critiquing some crackpot pseudoscience notion like "creationism" or climate-change denial. But their investigations and takedowns of various ghost and UFO stories and alternative-medicine frauds is both informative and entertaining. Their articles give the reader a sense of how easy it can be to be taken in by a bogus claim and also some basic techniques people can use to judge claims on the news and in popular gossip when they deal with events or subjects with which the reader has no first-hand knowledge or expertise.

One of the social processes that affect the acceptance of all claims, not just "fake news," is confirmation from people around you. As the linguists and philosophers building on their work tell us, the formation and refinement of knowledge is very much a social process. And in practice, that means that for much of what we believe we know in daily life is based on whether people we know and trust believe the claim and how intensely they believe it.

I'm not making an argument that all our knowledge is subjective. Reality has an unpleasant way of imposing itself on us when we ignore it.

One very notable thing about Robb's article and the related podcast it that they focus on how important Breitbart and FOX News are to rightwing fabricated "alternative facts" that get magnified by partisan online dissemination, not all of it from engaged individuals. Yes, there are Russian bots out there.

And they also call attention to how people who have been thinking in tune with the rightwing media environment will take contrary reporting from the mainstream press as confirmation of the claims being refuted. When you let FOX and Breitbart and the like rewire your head, strange things can happen. That's also the topic of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's tweet:


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Joe Conason, still debunking Clinton pseudoscandals

Joe Conason, co-author with Gene Lyons of The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton (2000), has addressed two sets of Clinton pseudoscandals. Uranium One is a relatively new entry in the portfolio of Clinton pseudoscandals. The allegation is that Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State was bribed by Russians via the Clinton Foundation into approving the sale of a company named Uranium One to a state-owned Russian company, Rosatom.

Clinton writes in One radioactive smear campaign New York Daily News 11/19/2017:

Neither the House Republicans nor Sessions have yet explained how the Clintons could have controlled the disposition of Uranium One's assets. Nor have they explained how the Uranium One deal, which prohibited the Russians from selling so much as an ounce of uranium ore outside the borders of the United States, could have endangered American national security.

And they have also failed to explain why the entire deal matters anyway, since the portion of U.S. reserves owned by Uranium One represents a tiny fraction of a fraction — a tenth of 1% — of the world's uranium supply, most of which comes from Kazakhstan, Australia and Canada.
He sketches out the claim here:

Through a complex series of business deals, Russia had obtained control of a portion of U.S. uranium reserves, using a Vancouver-based company called Uranium One. Some of the Canadian investors who profited from the sale of Uranium One to Rosatom, the Russian state-owned atomic energy corporation, had given millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation.

Russia's acquisition of American uranium had been approved by the State Department while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State. And Bill Clinton had received a $500,000 fee for a speech delivered in Moscow at a bank that had some connection with Uranium One.

What weakened that apparently damning story was a single big flaw: Hillary Clinton never had the sole authority to sign off on the sale of Uranium One to the Russians, but held only a single seat on a government panel that included members from nine agencies, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
What Conason doesn't say, though I think it's important, is that the laws are far too permissive on ways that donors and/or bribers (sometimes there is no difference) can channel money to candidates and campaigns. Payments to a candidates spouse of, say, $500,000 for a single speech - and even the prospect of earning such speaking fees after leaving office - certainly can be used in that way. But it's not at all clear that such a thing occurred in the Uranium One deal, or that the payments to the Clinton Foundation were in any way illegal. It looks like a pure pseudoscandal to me.

But I see this problem in the larger context of the Citizens' United campaign-funding regime, which is an oligarchical system that inevitably creates de facto corruption, even if much of it is de jure legal.

And, of course, our Pod Pundits can never resist a return to the Bill Clinton Penis Hunt of the 1990s. And the Republicans are skilled in playing to that obsession and to the corporate media's posture of trying to provide a Both Sides Do It phony equivalency between the Democratic and Republican parties on all issues.

So it took only a few days after the Roy Moore sex scandals broke for the Republicans to get the media back on the BCPH again. And there are always Democrats feckless enough to play the same game. Conason addresses the Return Of The BCPH in A ‘Reckoning’ For Bill Clinton? Don’t Forget Starr’s $70 Million Probe National Memo 11/17/2017:
Unlike Weinstein, Moore, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, or any of the dozens of powerful men whose misdeeds have provoked a wave of justified fury, Clinton endured a long, painful, and very costly series of official investigations of his alleged sexual misdeeds. Various accounts of his private behavior, whether invented or truthful, filled thousands of hours of national airtime, millions of inches of newsprint, and dozens of books ....

Unlike the Fox News criminals and many other creeps who quietly reached settlements that kept the most lurid details of their behavior under court seal, Clinton’s alleged acts were litigated publicly all the way to the Supreme Court — with attendant coverage that included, among other embarrassments, a debate about the appearance of his penis.

And most important, unlike any of those now in the dock, Clinton underwent a $70-million investigation by a zealous federal inquisitor who had all the powers of the Justice Department, a team of relentless and experienced prosecutors, and the forensic services of the FBI, which he employed in a wide-ranging sex probe that went back decades. That special prosecutor’s name was Kenneth W. Starr. He would be dismayed to learn that his dogged efforts to destroy Clinton have so soon been forgotten.
He also reminds us of the eager but unsuccessful results of Kenneth Starr to validate the claims of Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick, two favorite icons of the latest BCPH. Which, for the Republicans, will apparently never goes away. I expect them to be harping on it 50 years from now. He also reminds us of the outcome of Paula Jones' charges.

Even after all this time, I still feel stunned when I'm reminded by an article like this how ridiculous the Clinton pseudoscandals lumped under the "Whitewater" rubric really were.

It was the New York Times that vaulted the Whitewater affair into a national issue by its credulous reporting in 1992, which was very competently dissected by Conason and Lyons in The Hunting of the President, and earlier by Lyons in Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater (1996), and in the documentary film version of The Hunting of the President.

So the NYT at least deserves credit for reporting on the final report of the special counsel in the Whitewater case, headed in its last phase by Robert Ray, Final Report By Prosecutor On Clintons Is Released 03/21/2002
In a final report that ends the Whitewater investigation that sprawled across a range of subjects and vexed President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton for most of his two terms in the White House, the independent counsel's office said today that there was insufficient evidence to show that either committed any crimes.

Robert W. Ray, the last occupant of the office of independent counsel for Whitewater matters, said in the 2,090-page report that the Clintons' principal business partner in the Whitewater land development scheme in Arkansas, James B. McDougal, had committed several acts of fraud, but that there was no credible evidence that the Clintons either knew of or participated in those acts.

The report concluded the long legal melodrama that resulted in Mr. Clinton's impeachment and sharply split the nation about whether he was the victim of a politically motivated criminal investigation or had truly committed substantial offenses.
The whole underlying pseudoscandal around Whitewater turned out to have been completely bogus.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Abortion and the Roy Moore scandal

One of the things that has struck me about the discussion of the Roy Moore scandals among self-identified conservative Christians is how their ideological position on abortion seems to trump their sense of disgust at even child molestation when it comes to voting choices.

John Archibald reports on a classmate of one of Moore's accusers who gives background information about Moore's reputation at the time he was hitting on high school girls, Schoolmate of Roy Moore accuser: He was 'creepy and icky' AL.com 11/16/2017. She seems to take the molestation accusations seriously, and she claims she also was molested as a child, though not by Moore:
"I was molested," she said. "It started when I was five years old and it went for several years. I have yet to confront this person. I've had several Christian counselors and psychiatrists and I didn't tell them until just this past year. It's been almost 50 years."

She can only imagine what it's like to see her abuser every day on TV.

"If I had to hear his voice -- whether it be on the radio or TV or see a picture of him and his name in print -- I would find the loudest and largest voice I could find to speak out," she said.

It has happened time and time again since the Roy Moore allegations began. An Arizona woman came forward after more than 60 years to talk about her abuser, and women across Alabama have done the same. Because it is a moment of change in the culture.

"It's not political," she said. "It's our lives."

But it puts her in a tough spot, because she doesn't support Doug Jones or his views on abortion.

So who is she going to vote for?

"I can't imagine voting for either one of them. I don't know. It's a horribly sad state.

"Literally."
Schoolmate of Leigh Corfman talks about avoiding Roy Moore in the mall as a teenager AL.com YouTube 11/16/2017:



Abortion was consciously used as symbolic issue by the Christian Right as it emerged in its present form in the late 1970s. Abortion was not a high priority issue for most conservative Christians until then. Conservative churches generally didn't make much ruckus about the Roe v. Wade decision when it was handed down in 1973. Not that it was an invisible issue. Legalizing abortion was a priority for the women's movement. And the Nixon-Agnew campaign in 1972 used opposition to abortion as one of several signifiers that they were opposed to hippies and lefties.

But it has now become a issue which signifies a whole wide range of morally-charged loyalties for Republicans.

This is especially notable because I've gotten to the point where it's difficult for me to believe that virtually any Republicans actually cares about the issue in the way they claim. I'll consider changing my mind when I see a majority of Republicans in Congress vote against a war on the explicit grounds that it would kill innocent "unborn babies." As all our wars do.

Have you every heard a single Republican politician or voter express concern about the "unborn babies" killed in the wars they cheer on? Me neither.

But even for someone like this woman who describes herself as a victim of childhood sexual molestation and even defends Moore's accusers against the excuse that they didn't "come forward" for 40 years, an excuse which she clearly thinks is ridiculous, cites "abortion" as her reason for (apparently) still considering supporting someone like Moore. She does mention it in the broader context of identifying herself politically as part of the "Christian conservative" tribe.

She ever states, "I am proud to say I voted for Donald Trump. Despite everything. I think it's what our country needed."

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fethullah Gülen and last year's coup in Turkey

The European Council on Foreign Relations presents an essay by journalist Sedat Ergin of Hürriyet Daily about last year's attempted coup in Turkey, No question who planned and executed the attempted coup in Turkey 10/27/2017

From the start, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan blamed the coup attempt on followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist leader who has livedin the US since the late 1990s but was a supporter of Erdoğan's until 2013. (I wrote about it at the time in Turkish coup, Erdoğan and Gülen 08/05/2017; Turkey and the US War for the Greater Middle East 08/05/2017)

Gülen made his way into the endless and endlessly strange series of stories about the shady foreign ties of Donald Trump's closest collaborators just recently, as Carol Lee and Julia Ainsley reported for NBC News in Mueller Probing Possible Deal Between Turks, Flynn During Presidential Transition 11/10/2017:
Four people familiar with the investigation said Mueller is looking into whether [former National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn discussed in the late December meeting orchestrating the return to Turkey of a chief rival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who lives in the U.S. Additionally, three people familiar with the probe said investigators are examining whether Flynn and other participants discussed a way to free a Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Reza Zarrab, who is jailed in the U.S. Zarrab is facing federal charges that he helped Iran skirt U.S. sanctions. ...

Erdoğan has repeatedly pressed U.S. officials to extradite the cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Turkey blames Gülen for the attempted coup in that country in July 2016. Erdoğan also has repeatedly raised Zarrab's case with U.S. officials. ...

NBC News reported Sunday that federal investigators were looking into whether Flynn tried to push for the return of Gülen to Turkey once in the White House in exchange for millions of dollars, and that Trump administration officials asked the FBI to review the Gülen case anew. Officials said the FBI denied the request because Turkey had not provided any new evidence in the case, which was reviewed by the Obama administration.
Newsweek's report was a bit sharper, saying that the investigation was about a Turkish offer to Flynn to kidnap Gülen and take him illegally back to Turkey. (Graham Lanktree, Mueller Investigating Michael Flynn for Plot to Kidnap Turkis Opposition 11/10/17)

Sedat Ergin notes that Turkish prosecutors cast a wide net and have brought charges against some soldiers who were ordered into action at the time without any actual knowledge that they were participating in a coup:
Among those tried are names known to be Gülenists in the military, as well as a considerable number of generals not thought to be pro-Gülen names. The existence of this second group of soldiers sometimes prompts questions in the West about whether the coup was primarily Gülenist enterprise.

But in fact the reason for their being on trial is that they had been selected by the Gülenists to fill certain military or bureaucratic positions after the putsch - as indicated in the assignment lists they prepared before the coup. Prosecutors linked the majority of the generals whose names appear in these lists to the coup, and subsequently arrested them even though they seem to have been unaware of their assignments. [my emphasis]
But as for the coup itself, based on the evidence and confessions so far, Ergin states confidently that there was "an extremely detailed, comprehensive coup plan that spread to all corners of Turkey, covering all branches of the military in the army, navy and the air force, as well as the gendarmerie." And:
As a journalist who witnessed the reality of Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt, and who has subsequently worked on this matter through many court files, it is quite incomprehensible that there is still debate in Western societies on the identity of the perpetrators of the coup – even calling into question the reality of the putsch itself.

The prevailing authoritarian trend in Turkey and the strict practices of the state under ongoing emergency rule likely play a role in such confusion. But the dust cloud brought about by these authoritarian practices - which require the harshest criticisms from the standpoint of democracy and the principle of the rule of law - should not be allowed to obscure the reality of the coup itself.

What we have before us is a coup attempt that was shaped over many months by civilian and military Gülenists, with the Akıncı air base in serving as the command centre in the execution phase. This can be documented with very credible evidence presented in countless ongoing lawsuits. Regardless of the events that have taken place since July 15, there can be no doubt whatsoever who planned and executed this attack on Turkish democracy.
US relations with Turkey have gotten more complicated and ambiguous in recent years, especially around the Syrian civil war and the status of the Kurds. So I've wondered since last year if the US government was involved in active monkey business of some kind around the coup.

On the other hand, even if that's the case, I wouldn't want to see Gülen kidnapped by whatever sort of goons a guy like Michael Flynn might hire to do the job and sent back to Turkey on the sly.

If there are legitimate reasons to extradite him and there is reasonable assurance he would receive a fair trial, that would be another story. And if he's been doing anything illegal here - like planning a coup in another country against the wishes of the US government - then some kind of US legal action against him is probably required.

Electing Roy Moore - and seating him in the Senate?

Infamous theocratic blowhard Roy Moore's chances of winning the open Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III have probably been diminished by credible accusations from two women that he sexually abused them as minors.

But who knows? It's Alabama. And a non-trivial number of voters there are telling pollsters the accusations makes them more likely to vote for him.

The truth is that the Democratic candidate Doug Jones was always a strong candidate. Even though conventional wisdom assumed - not without reason - that it would be difficult for a Democrat to win the seat.

But the unexpected turn of events with the scandalous revelations about Moore is yet another reminder of how damaging the Barack Obama/Debbie Wasserman-Schultz strategy of studied neglect of state parties and less-competitive districts has been to the Democratic Party. Even the most conventional political pundits now realized that the liberal Democrat Doug Jones has a real shot at winning the Senate election in supposedly safely Republican Alabama. If the Democratic National Committee had spent the eight years of the Obama Presidency building the state party in Alabama, they would have been in an ever stronger position to take the Senate seat in December.

It's important to keep in mind that for Obama, having the Democratic Party be non-competitive and weak in many states was an advantage. Obama seemed genuinely obsessed with bipartisanship as an end in itself. And some of his major goals were downright conservative, particularly his repeated attempts at a Grand Bargain to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. And it's hard to forget how willing he was cave to Congressional Republicans on occasions like the "fiscal cliff" deal at the beginning of 2013. As Paul Krugman wrote at the time, "He kept drawing lines in the sand, then erasing them and retreating to a new position. And his evident desire to have a deal before hitting the essentially innocuous fiscal cliff bodes very badly for the confrontation looming in a few weeks over the debt ceiling." (Perspective on the Deal New York Times 01/01/2017)

For a Democrat like Obama eager to make those kinds of compromises and concessions, it's actually better to have a Republican majority or only a narrow Democratic majority in Congress. If bipartisanship is a goal in itself, not annoying conservative Republicans in a state like Alabama is a feature, not a bug in the approach.

There is presently a lot of speculation about whether the Republicans will replace Moore as the Republican candidate. As I understand it from the news reports, the Alabama Republican Party can withdraw its official endorsement of Moore. It's too late to take him off the ballot for the election now scheduled. But if the state party withdraws its endorsement, since Moore appears on the ballot as the Republican candidate, any votes for him in that category would be invalid. (If voters just wrote in his name, I don't know if those would be counted.) In one version of that scenario, the Republicans could get behind Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III as a write-in candidate. If he wins, he could resign as Attorney General to become Senator, then Trump could appoint a new Attorney General who could fire Robert Mueller and instead open an investigation of a series of Hillary Clinton pseudoscandals.

There has been discussion of the Senate declining to seat Moore if he wins, and much of the commentary I've seen appears to assume that's an obvious possibility. But as William Douglas reports in If elected, Roy Moore will probably take his seat in the Senate McClatchy Newspapers 11/14/2017:

Senate Republicans could try to refuse to seat Moore at all, but that could prove legally difficult thanks to the late Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, a Democrat from New York.

Powell won a Supreme Court case in 1969 after House leaders tried to refuse to seat him following his re-election because he was accused of misappropriating public funds. The justices ruled that Powell had to be seated because he met the Constitution’s age, residency and citizenship requirements to hold office.
Here is the Morning Zoo crowd today discussing the Moore race, including the Sessions option, Alabama Voters Continue Deliberation On Senate Candidate Roy Moore Morning Joe/MSNBC 11/15/2017:



At around 5:00 in the video, there is an Alabama example of what Germans and Austrians call a Stammtisch, a "regular table" where the good ole boys discuss life and politics and wimmin.

further reporting from the Washington Post: Sean Sullivan, National Republican move against Roy Moore grows — but key Alabama Republicans are not joining in 11/14/2017; Write-ins, expulsion: Roy Moore offers no easy answers for Republican Party WaPo/AL.com

Greg Garrison reports that Roy Moore was a topic of discussion at the annual state convention of Alabama Baptists, Alabama Baptists rattled by accusations against Roy Moore AL.com 11/14/2017:
The allegations have rattled pastors attending the Baptist convention.

"If he did it, we need to know that," said State Baptist President John Thweatt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pell City. "We need to condemn it. If he didn't, then we need to know that too. There are probably some people who will believe him no matter what."

Thweatt, who has four daughters, said the denomination stands opposed to the abuse of women.

"Baptists have to stand against the abuse of women," he said. "It's not tolerable. There are no exceptions. We have to create a culture that treating women as sexual objects is not acceptable. There's no hesitance to speak against the abuse of women. But we're hesitant to speak out against Roy Moore because we don't know if it's true."

Many of the pastors here have had Moore speak in their churches or attended prayer rallies with him.

"He has denied it and I take him at his word," said the Rev. John Killian, director of the Fayette County Baptist Association, who hosted Moore speaking twice when he was pastor of Maytown Baptist Church. "I believe him. That's not the way he's lived his life for the last 25 years. It's been reputable and respectable. He's a godly man, a brilliant man. I know Roy Moore. He has a great relationship with (his wife) Kayla. That's not the guy that's (being portrayed) out there now. I believe he's a good man. I don't believe the allegations have been proven. When a brother in Christ speaks, you give him the benefit of the doubt."

The Rev. Chad Burdette, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Ranburne, said he attended a prayer rally at which Moore recited Psalm 103 from memory. "Until it's proven, pastors are holding their breath," Burdette said. "If it's not, then maybe they are afraid of having a man that quotes scripture in government. Are they that afraid? Maybe they are scared of this guy who is so full of scripture. We can't cast a stone because we all have sinned. The truth always comes to the surface."
I would say that none of those quoted responses actually qualify as examples of prophetic courage.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Trump is not happy about former intelligence officials talking about the Russians and the 2016 election

Jake Tapper interviewed James Clapper and John Brennan on Trump's latest rejection of the USA intelligence agency findings on Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 Presidential eleciton, Ex-intelligence chiefs fire back at Trump criticism (Entire CNN interview) 11/12/2017:



Juan Cole evaluates this significance of this interview in Former CIA Dir.: Trump is afraid of Putin Kompromat Informed Comment 11/13/2017:
The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency openly alleged the real possibility that the sitting president of the United States is being successfully blackmailed and that policy is being made as a result of Trump’s fear of exposure.

Brennan was clear that he has no proof that Trump is compromised.

But Brennan would not make this allegation unless he had at least circumstantial evidence of “kompromat” or compromising materials in the hands of Putin, of the release of which Trump is deeply afraid.
I've never felt comfortable with Democrats or liberals puffing that they're shocked! shocked! I tell you shocked! that Republicans or anyone else would dare question our sacred intelligence agencies. That's a silly and even irresponsible position to take.

James Clapper was Director of National Intelligence (DNI) under Obama (2010-2017), Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence under Shrub Bush and then Obama (2007-2010), Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Old Man Bush and Bill Clinton (1991-1995). He is a hawkish Democrat affiliated now with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

John Brennan was Director of the National Counterterrorism Center under Shrub Bush (2004-2005), Homeland Security Adviser to Obama (2004-2005), and Director of the CIA under Obama (2013-2017).

I might look at those backgrounds and wish that President Obama had been more cautious about appointing people to senior positions who had been comfortable working in high positions from an irresponsible warmongering like George W. Bush.

But by the same token, it would be difficult to look at those backgrounds and honestly conclude that these were liberal Democratic ideological hacks.

It is also important to remember that some of the claims about the 2016 election interference that were accepted by the Democrats and the press didn't pan out exactly the way they were publicized. This MSNBC segment includes a reminder that the "17 intelligence agencies" trope that Hillary Clinton used in a debate with Trump was not actually true. The most relevant intelligence agencies - the CIA, the FBI and the NSA, endorsed by the Director of National Intelligence - did find that there was real Russian interference.
What Happened To America First?
| Kasie DC | MSNBC 11/13/2017;



Dana Priest provides some useful perspective in this piece looking at whether we should fault the US intelligence agencies and the Obama Administration for failing to report publicly during the election campaign what they believed they knew with confidence on Russia interference, Russia’s Election Meddling Is Another American Intelligence Failure New Yorker 11/13/2017.

I found this observation particularly interesting:
Government analysts have always viewed open-source information, or OSINT, as it is called in the intelligence world, as a poor substitute for classified information. Intelligence officials often dismiss the importance of public pronouncements by foreign leaders, actions recorded by journalists, data collected by university professors, and discussions at open conferences. It is a decades-old problem. In 2002, the practice helped blind U.S. intelligence officials to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s evidence that Iraq did not actually possess weapons of mass destruction. In 2010, it blinded them again to the Arab Spring revolutions brewing across the Middle East. Devaluing OSINT has become a more significant problem as Russia and China use social media as an arena to wage disinformation operations.

Unless F.B.I. agents and American intelligence officers get over this bias, they will continue asking for special powers to snoop on Internet users in ways that should not be allowed. If they are denied their surveillance requests, they will likely throw up their hands and say that they then can’t help fix the problem. [my emphsis]

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Immigration and austerity, Brexit version

Simon Wren-Lewis takes on the ever-vexing question of class-vs.-identity politics, which is a lively one at the moment in Europea as well as the Democratic Party in the US, Links between austerity and immigration, and the power of information Mainly Macro 11/01/2017.

Wren-Lewis looks the role of xenophobia in rightwing nationalist politics in Britain, and argues that:
... it is a mistake to imagine it is all about economics, or even ‘culture’. One of the unfortunate consequences of the culture vs economics debate over populism is the implication that one way or another views are deterministic, and the only issue is what kind of determinism. The reason I go on about the media so much is that information matters a lot too. Although people may be anti-immigration because they have xenophobic tendencies which are reinforced when times are bad, they can also be anti-immigration because they have poor information, or worse still have been fed deliberately misleading facts. [my emphasis]

Political motivations are overdetermined, in other words. A good formulation of it, and that's important. "Operationalizing" it in practical politics is considerably more complicated.

He links to an article by Roger Scully, I spent a year researching why working-class Welsh people in the Valleys voted for Brexit, and this is what I found Independent 10/26/2017. Scully reports on the findings of a Cardiff University study that analyzed the Brexit vote in the Wales Valleys, a longtime Labour stronghold that voted Leave, despite the Labour Party's pro-EU position. Scully notes that elections in June 2017 showed that Labour still remains strong in voter preferences. The study found that immigration stood out as a key issue in the Leave voters expressed motivations for their vote:
Focus group participants in Merthyr and the Rhondda were notably unhappy at the increase in the Polish communities in those places. This was not articulated simply as xenophobia: a specifically working-class objection to immigration advanced to us was that, by making the jobs market much more competitive, the wages of locals were driven downwards. Thus, immigration was viewed as working much more to the benefit of managers and companies than for ordinary working people. Immigrants willing to work for low wages were also seen as contributing to the decline in some town centres, and in particular leading to the growth of charity and low-value shops catering to the needs of a low-wage economy.

Scully also wrote about the findings of the study in New research shows deep divisions persisting on Brexit Welsh Brexit Blog 10/26/2017:
  • There remains substantial hostility among many of these voters towards immigration, with specific problems cited being immigrants taking jobs from locals and driving down wages – to the benefit of employers rather than ordinary workers;
  • The statement that Wales is a net beneficiary from the EU budget was treated with significant scepticism by focus group participants. And much EU spending in the valleys was viewed as wasteful ‘vanity projects’.
  • Many Leave voters expect that Brexit may cause short-term problems, but they expect it to be worth it in the longer-term.

Wren-Lewis uses the findings to discuss how austerity economics interacts with fear about immigration:
Why might attitudes to immigration change? I strongly suspect that anti-immigration attitudes, along with suspicion about benefit claimants, become stronger in bad times. When real wages are rising it is difficult to fire people up with arguments that they would have risen even faster in the absence of immigration. But when real wages are falling, as they have been in the UK in an unprecedented way over the last decade, it is much easier to blame outsiders. Equally when public services deteriorate it is easy to blame newcomers.

It is wrong to think that this only happens among working class, left behind communities. Catalonia is a relatively rich part of Spain, and there has always been resentment about this area ‘subsidising’ the rest of the country. But it is very noticeable how support for pro-independence parties increased sharply as Spain turned to austerity, although that could also be a reaction to corruption scandals. [my emphasis]
The dominance of neoliberal economic policies and their endorsement by the Labour Party for many years also meant in practice slow in real wage growth and a decline in public services, both key parts of the neoliberal gospel.

Wren-Lewis emphasizes the pro-immigration politicians can't just cower in fear of xenophobic propaganda and sentiments, they need to make the case for the benefits of immigration:
Of course most people want to stop immigrants coming here and claiming unemployment benefit. This is why newspapers keep playing the trick of talking about the large number of migrants ‘who are not employed’, conveniently forgetting to mention that this includes people like mothers looking after children. In reality unemployment among EU immigrants is below that among the native population. In addition, we can already deport EU immigrants that remain unemployed under EU law if the government could be bothered to do so.

For politicians who do want to start making the case for immigration, the place I would start is public services. Few economists would dispute that immigrants pay more in tax than they take out in using public services. Yet most of the public believe the opposite. [my emphasis]

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Resources on the Russian Revolution

I wanted to provide some links here to some of the resources I've come across about the Russian Revolution in connection with the 100th anniversary date.

The Deutsches Historische Museum in Berlin has a webpage on Die Russische Revolution. And if you happen to be in Berlin, they are running a series of classic movies on the topic.

From the DHM's flyer on the exhibit:
The revolutionary events of 1917 and the civil war led to a fundamental, systemic change that influenced the entire 20th century. From a mental and cultural perspective, the revolution at first brought about radical changes in all areas of society. It led to new forms of economy, education and culture, fostered national, political and social freedom movements and inspired artists and people working in all areas of culture. But the forging of this new society was accompanied – from the outset – by terror, violence and repression. The exhibition 1917. Revolution. Russia and Europe explores the revolutionary events in Russia and the early Soviet Union and also examines the reactions and counter-reactions that the political and social upheaval triggered in Europe, by focusing on a selection of European countries.

Here is a 27-minute documentary on the Russian Revolution from RT, which the American media now routinely describes as a "Russian propaganda channel." (RT just agreed to register in the US as a foreign agent, but they aren't happy about it: Natasha Bertrand, RT editor-in-chief: US affiliate of Russia Today will register as a foreign agent Business Insider ) It's main message seems to be that the significance of the Russian Revolution is to provide material for kitchy novelty products and conversation topics for ditsy idealists. Revolution: 100 years young. Lenin’s socialist vision in capitalist world 11/05/2017:



Kremlin unease marks centennial of 1917 Bolshevik revolution Al Jazeera English 11/07/2017:



Here's a much shorter report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which I guess for balance we should call the American propaganda channel, Russia's Communists Mark Centenary Of Bolshevik Revolution, Kremlin Plays It Down 11/07/2017:



Here is a short report from Deutsche Welle English, which I'll refrain from describing as a German propaganda channel, Russia holds low-key celebration of 1917 Revolution 11/07/2017:



YouTube lists a number of reports and documentaries, most from dubiously-name providers I've never heard of. But if you want to hear a conventionally Marxist-Leninist take on the October Revolution, in this episode of Empire Files on the left channel TeleSUR English, Abby Martin interviews Brian Becker of an American political sect called the Party for Socialism and Liberation, What the Russian Revolution Proved Possible 11/07/2017. I'm afraid his main achievement here is to make the whole thing sound boring.



This is another one from Deutsche Welle, a 42-minute documentary called The Russian Revolution: how artists experienced the Bolshevik takeover 10/25/2017. This one is creative, engaging, and informative.



This 3 1/2 minute documentary spot from the Smithsonian Channel is about Mutiny in Petrograd, about the February Revolution, some of which is a docudrama-style reconstrution:



Mitchell Cohen in What Lenin’s Critics Got Right Dissent (Fall 2017) Kind of a classic social-democratic commentary on the October Revolution. He gives a lot of legitimacy to the Constituent Assembly elected in November 1917 and dismissed by the Bolshevik government in January 1918.

Jacobin has been running articles all this year, with links collected as The Russian Revolution at 100. Here are some that I find particularly worthwhile:


The New York Times has been running a series of articles under the rubric of Red Century, several of which deal directly with the October Revolution. They are worth checking out, though I've seen a couple that I'm thinking were not edited carefully enough.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The New Economic Policy In the USSR

I've completed my numbered series of posts on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. It's been interesting to take a new look at some of those events and to read some of the published articles marking the anniversary.

The Russian Revolution began with the February Revolution in 1917 and really came to an end in 1921 with the conclusion of the longer, difficult, bloody civil war that I described in some of my recent posts.

March 1921 saw a turn from the economic policies of "war communism" to what was called the New Economic Policy (NEP). The most important political aspect of the NEP was that it put an end to the forced requisitions from the peasants that had led to increasing discontent as the civil war drew to an end.


War communism was primarily an emergency measure, though it also involved the kind of nationalizations that had been part of the Bolshevik program prior to the revolution. But it was also a response to the desperate pressure to marshal resources for the civil war that began in 1918, after years of devastation and death in the war with Germany in the First World War. It involved strict requisitioning of grain and the state taking control of even relatively small businesses.

Some sense of that pressure shows in a communication from Lenin to N. Osinsky of March 1, 1921:
Yesterday I saw Ivan Afanasyevich Chekunov. It turned out that he had already been to see me in 1919 on the question of a congress of toiling peasants. Now he says: it is better to start with regional ones.

He Sympathises with the Communists, but will not join the Party, because he goes to church and is a Christian (he says he rejects the ritual but is a believer).

He has been improving his farm. He has toured Nizhni-Novgorod and Simbirsk gubernias. He says the peasants have lost confidence in the Soviet power. I asked him whether we could right things with a tax? He thinks we could. In his own uyezd, he has succeeded, with the help of the workers, to substitute a good Soviet authority for the bad one.

That is the kind of people we must do our utmost to hold on to, in order to restore the confidence of the peasant mass. This is the main political task and one which brooks no delay. My earnest request: see that the “apparatus” standpoint does not run away with you, and do not worry too much over it. Devote more attention to the political attitude towards the peasantry.
The New Economic Policy (NEP) represented a backing off of the extreme control of industry, business and agriculture, especially the latter. This policy was in effect until 1929, when it was succeeded by collectivization of agriculture and what is often called "forced industrialization," i.e., a high-pressure effort to expand the USSR's industrial base.

Jerry Hough and Merle Fainsold sketched out the contours of the NEP this way (How the Soviet Union Is Governed, 1979):
The so-called "commanding heights" of large-scale industry remained under state administration, though even these enterprises, organized in the form of trusts, were to be operated on commercial principles with substantial freedom to buy and sell on the open market and with the obligation to operate on a basis of profitability. In actuality, the "commanding heights" (which included all heavy industry, the transportation system, and the central banking system) did dominate the industrial scene, employing 84 percent of the industrial labor force. However, so far as the consumer was concerned, much of the tone of NEP was set by the private sector. Although small in size, the private industries constituted 88.5 percent of the total number of enterprises, and the trade network was virtually all private. The symbol of the era became the so-called Nepmen who arose to carry on the functions of buying and selling, sometimes through private trading concerns of their own, sometimes concealed as cooperatives, and not infrequently as official agents of the state trading organizations themselves. [my emphasis]
Evaluations and political positioning around the NEP became major factors in the political struggles of the 1920s, including the most significant one, that between Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky for leadership of the Communist Party.

Monday, November 06, 2017

(19) October Revolution: Lenin and the politics of 1917

Viktor Mikhaylovich Chernov (1893-1952) was a founder and a leder of the peasant-based Social Revolutionary Party, who served as Agricultural Minister under Kerensky and who endorsed Kerensy's policy of continuing the war. He was brought into the Kerensky's regime on May 5 as part of the first "coalition" government. He became the President of the Constituent Assembly that the Bolshevik government dissolved after its first day in operation in January 1918. He associated briefly with one of the counterrevolutionary White governments, and in 1920 emigrated to France and later to America.

Rex Wade recounts how during the July Days unrest in 1917, Chernov was taken hostage by a group of the famously militant Kronstadt sailors, angry at him for not taking a more radical position. "The worker who shook his fist in Chernov’s face and yelled 'Take power you son-of-a-bitch when it is offered to you' illustrated the frustration of the crowd. It was only with difficulty that Leon Trotsky, who had already become a popular radical, got him freed."

Lenin speaking with Trotsky standing by the podium to his left

In 1924 after Lenin's death, the prestigious Foreign Affairs journal published a kind of obituary polemic by Chernov against his old enemy, Lenin (2:3; 03/15/1924).

It's a confusing and confused essay, in which he declares in the first part, "Politics to him meant strategy, pure and simple. Victory was the only commandment to observe; the will to rule and to carry through a political program without compromise, that was the only virtue; hesitation, that was the only crime."

Yet he also writes, "Foresight on a large scale, however, was the very thing he lacked. He was a fencing master first of all, and a fencer needs only a little foresight and no complicated ideas." Which would imply that Lenin thought almost purely tactically, the opposite of the previous description. He reinforces this with, "This perfect and immediate tactical sense formed a complete contrast to the absolutely unfounded and fantastic character of any more extensive historical prognosis he ever attempted - of any program that comprised more than today and tomorrow."

Chernov denied that Lenin was a "blind dogmatist." Instead, "he often became a quack, an experimenter, a gambler; this is why he was an opportunist, which is something diametrically opposed to a dogmatist."

It's not unusual for political polemics to be inconsistent. Nor for actual people to have strange contradictions in their behavior.

But regardless what one thinks of his goals or his methods, the notion that for Lenin, "Victory was the only commandment to observe; the will to rule and to carry through a political program without compromise, that was the only virtue; hesitation, that was the only crime," doesn't reflect the reality of Lenin's political career, and particularly not that of 1917.

The cascade of events of that year and the victory of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution can't be recounted without the remarkable story of Lenin's role as the primary Bolshevik leader. The Bolsheviks had relatively little influence on the Provisional Government under Kerensky, which depended in its various changing formations during the year by Liberals, rightwingers, Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionaries. The Social Revolutionaries were the primary party among the peasants, who constituted the majority of the population.

When Lenin returned to Russia from years of exile after the February Revolution, he initially stood alone among the leadership of the party in demanding that the Bolsheviks oppose the Provisional Government. During the July Days unrest, he opposed calls from some other Bolsheviks to attempt an immediate seizure of power. But after the Kornilov Revolt of August was suppressed, he found himself again initially alone in pressing for military preparations for a forcible seizure of power in the immediate future.


Starting from the moment of the February Revolution, pulling off the subsequent October Revolution required both strategic sense and tactical talent and dexterity on the part of the Bolshevik leaders, Lenin in particular. Do they support the Provisional Government or not? Do they support the election of a Constituent Assembly or not? Should they take a prowar position in defense of the new government or continue to oppose the war? What kind of opportunities did the July Days present? How will the public react after Kerensky's accusations that Lenin was an agent of the German Kaiser? How big of a danger did the Kornilov Revolt present to the Provisional Government and the broader revolutionary movement? Should the Bolsheviks defend the Provisional Government in that particular situation or not? Do the Bolsheviks pursue an alliance with the Left Social Revolutionaries or try to go it alone in seizing power? Do they make the workers' and soldiers' councils (soviets) the basis of their legitimacy or do they continue to support the elections for the Constituent Assembly after October 26?

And in those days before TV and perpetual public opinion polls, the Bolsheviks also had to gauge public opinion on the war, the hunger crisis, and the confusing series of crises foreign and domestic. They had to do the usual things politicians do in normal times: making contacts with other, striking deals, building alliances, rolling out political mobilization programs. In addition, there was a heavy military component to the politics. The Bolsheviks had to organize their own military command under intense time pressure, coordinate with the soldiers' soviets, gauge the capabilities and likely responses to military commanders to changing political situations. And there were the Germans, still taking more Russian territory and attempting to defend the country under the Provisional Government just as they had been doing with the Czar in power.

Another major factor was the "dual power" arrangement. There was a Provisional Government. But there was also a separate and independent revolutionary structure composed of the soviets, the workers' and soldiers' councils. The dual powers each had to coordinate and compete with the other. And it was obvious to all that having two separate governmental structures for the same political entity was not a sustainable situation. And overlaying the two government structures were the partisan conflicts of the various parties jockeying for position in both the Provisional Government and the soviets.

Navigating this political situation was difficult for everyone. And to come out on top as the Bolsheviks did, and to establish and maintain their power and legitimacy as a government during a bitter two-year civil war, they had to know what they were doing on a lot of fronts and many levels. Luck always plays a role in politics, and the same was true in 1917 in Russia.

Lenin mugging for the camera
Lenin and the Bolsheviks didn't drop out of the sky, or emerge from the nether regions of the earth, as their most hostile critics might prefer to say. They had been involved in politics actively, including competing for seats in the (largely toothless) parliament, the Duma. They had experienced leaders and seasoned activists that had worked together for years, often under very adverse conditions. Lenin himself was very active within the Socialist International agitating against the war. His exile in Poland and later in Switzerland weren't long vacations. He was not only intensely involved in Russian politics and partisan journalism from afar. That also gave him experience and insight into the foreign policy approaches of the European powers who would be critical as allies or enemies in the event of a revolution.

He wasn't, say, just some real estate and casino magnate with a side career in show business who took over leadership of the country with little or no actual experience in politics or government.

George Kennan took a very different view of the nature and importance of Lenin's leadership (The Russian Revolution: Its Nature and Consequences Foreign Affairs 46:1; Oct 1967) in the Russian Revolution from 1917 on:
... it is tempting to say that Bolshevism triumphed because no unity existed among its major political opponents, and none of those opponents, in any case, would have been remotely capable of ruling the country. But it would be an oversimplification to attribute the Communist success solely to these negative factors. No less central to it were positive ones as well: the extraordinary discipline, compactness and conspiratorial tightness of the Communist Party; the magnificent political leadership - bold, ruthless, determined and imaginative - given to it at all times by its dominant figure, Vladimir Il'ich Ulyanov-Lenin; and the driving, unrelenting military leadership which the party gave to the Red Army units in the civil war. In the vast fluid confusion that followed the breakdown of the old order, the cutting edge of these qualities was of far greater effectiveness than any of the shifting, undependable winds of popular sympathy. The Bolsheviki came out ahead very largely because they were, in this maelstrom of poorly organized political forces, the only political force that had hardness, sharpness, disciplined drive and clearly defined purpose. [my emphasis]

(18) Internationalism in the Soviet remembrance of the October Revolution

Today is the actual anniversary of the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks' initial seizure of power took place during the night of October 25-26 (Old Style) which is November 6-7 in the New Style calendar adopted by the new government which took effect on February 1, 1918 (New Style).

Part of the challenge in understanding the Russian Revolution is that the past has been continually reinterpreted. That happens with all historical events, of course. But the interpretations of Soviet history were not only very, very many in number. But some of those interpretations were perceived by the players as very high stakes.

David Brandenberger's Fate of Interwar Soviet Internationalism: A Case Study of the Editing of Stalin's 1938 Short Course on the History of the ACP(b) Revolutionary Russia, 29:1 (2016) is focused on one instance of that process. Nikita Khrushchev in his famous 1956 "secret speech" critiquing Stalin included a passage adressing Stalin's claims about the authorship of the Short Course, the book being a central piece of the official Soviet outlook, in the context of how Stalin had directed the preparation of a later hagiographic biography of himself (Text from The cult of the individual - part 4 Guardian 04/26/2007):
But even this phrase did not satisfy Stalin: The following sentence replaced it in the final version of the Short Biography: "In 1938, the book History of the All-Union Communist party (Bolsheviks), Short Course appeared, written by comrade Stalin and approved by a commission of the central committee, All-Union Communist party (Bolsheviks)." Can one add anything more?

(Animation in the hall.)

As you see, a surprising metamorphosis changed the work created by a group into a book written by Stalin. It is not necessary to state how and why this metamorphosis took place.

A pertinent question comes to our mind: if Stalin is the author of this book, why did he need to praise the person of Stalin so much and to transform the whole post-October historical period of our glorious Communist party solely into an action of "the Stalin genius"?

Did this book properly reflect the efforts of the party in the socialist transformation of the country, in the construction of socialist society, in the industrialisation and collectivisation of the country, and also other steps taken by the party which undeviatingly traveled the path outlined by Lenin? This book speaks principally about Stalin, about his speeches, about his reports. Everything without the smallest exception is tied to his name.

And when Stalin himself asserts that he himself wrote the Short Course, this calls at least for amazement. Can a Marxist-Leninist thus write about himself, praising his own person to the heavens?
I'm not especially concerned here with the exact role of Stalin in preparing the Short Course. But in the course of describing it, Brandenberger talks about the internationalist position that was reflected in the drafts prepared by the committee for Stalin's review. Stalin's edits on the Short Course, in Brandenberger's account, removed much of the internationalist focus focus from the text and instead gave more emphasis to the leadership of the Communist Party, a change reflecting Stalin's priorities of the moment.

Brandenberger describes the kind of internationalism that was part of Soviet ideology:
Propaganda and indoctrination played a central role in the Bolshevik movement from its earliest days. The party leadership’s demands in this regard changed after the October 1917 revolution, of course, when it set about transforming itself into a ruling institution. Mass agitation and indoctrination now became major priorities as the party sought new slogans and rallying calls with which to mobilize Soviet society. That said, the process of adapting Marxist-Leninist ideology and the party’s revolutionary experience into an appealing, accessible and evocative propaganda line turned out to be easier said than done. Ultimately, what Henry Steele Commager has referred to as ‘the search for a usable past’ preoccupied the party leadership well into the 1930s. Over the course of this long process, one of the few constants in the official line was its emphasis on the centrality of internationalism to the Soviet experiment. [my emphasis]
Initially, there were high hopes by Lenin and other Communist leaders immediately after the October Revolution that there would be other revolutions in Europe, Germany in particular. It didn't wind up happening. But it wasn't a completely unrealistic expectation. The Marxist theories dominant in the Second International assumed that a socialist revolution in a "backward" country with many more peasants than industrial workers would not be able to maintain itself without assistance from a socialist revolutionary government in a rich country. And until 1917, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was generally viewed as the world's leading party in the pursuit of socialism.

The writers of the Short Course draft described the initial period of the revolution this way:
Invoking the global dimensions of the Bolshevik experience in the introduction to their manuscript, they then promptly returned to the subject shortly thereafter in order to declare that that at the turn of the twentieth century Russia stood at the epicentre of the worldwide revolutionary moment. Industrialization was more rapid in Russia than elsewhere, conditions were more oppressive and the working class was more aware of how little it had to lose. V. I. Lenin argued in this regard that Russia represented a weak link in the international capitalist system and offered an ideal site for revolution. What was needed was a disciplined revolutionary vanguard of radicals – a position that led Lenin and his Bolsheviks into conflict with more conciliatory, ‘opportunistic’ Menshevik elements within Russian Social Democracy. Lenin clashed with the Second Communist International during these years on account of the unwillingness of Social Democrats such as Karl Kautsky and August Bebel to endorse his revolutionary activism. Even leftists like Rosa Luxemburg did not automatically side with Lenin.
Even this account reflects post-1917 priorities and perceptions. It requires imagination to argue that "at the turn of the twentieth century Russia stood at the epicentre of the worldwide revolutionary moment," although the 1905 revolutionary outbreak in Russia did attract considerable interest and attention in other countries of Europe. Some of it sympathetic, some of it horrified.

Brandenberger continues that account:
The fall of the Russian autocracy in February 1917 gave Russian Social Democrats an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the Second International and resume their commitment to worldwide revolution. According to Iaroslavskii and Pospelov, however, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries refused to capitalize on the extraordinary disruption that the war was causing, revealing their parochial, bourgeois orientation. Lenin, by contrast, continued to press the case for a new International and socialist revolution, both in exile and upon his return to Russia in April 1917. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government that October, Iaroslavskii and Pospelov quoted Stalin as attributing the victory to three international factors. First, the revolution had taken place at a time when the world’s major imperialist powers were preoccupied by their own internecine conflict. Second, the ongoing war led many in foreign lands to sympathize with the Russian revolution’s call for a cessation to the ongoing hostilities. Third, the war had created a revolutionary crisis throughout the combatant countries that won the Bolsheviks new allies in the struggle against imperialism.
That view of matters does give an idea of how for many people in other countries, the October Revolution was viewed with sympathy and hope. That may be more difficult for people to envision now. But czarism had been dearly hated by European democrats, including socialists, for a century or more. After Russia's defeat of Napoleon's invasion and the establishment of a restorationist peace with the Treaties of Paris of 1814-1815, Russia was widely perceived as a bulwark of royalist and reactionary regimes in continental Europe. And Russia had indeed played that role in the democratic revolutions of 1848.
Iaroslavskii and Pospelov framed the 1918–21 civil war in global terms, tracing it to international imperialism’s attempt to suppress the threat of world revolution. Hardfought Bolshevik victories against both foreign and domestic enemies in 1918 contributed to the collapse of the old order in the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Soviet power was then at least briefly established in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belorussia, Ukraine and the Caucasus. In Germany, the communist Spartacists under Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht rose in rebellion before being betrayed by local Social Democrats. In Hungary, communists also briefly took power, while other movements emerged in Switzerland, France, Poland, the United States and elsewhere. Although these risings faltered due to right-wing reaction, left-wing weakness and Social Democratic treachery, they proved Lenin to have been right about the revolutionary nature of the international situation. Eager to support such radicalism, Lenin quickly founded the Third Communist International – the Comintern – to serve as the ‘military headquarters’ of the world revolutionary movement.
Again, the authors were writing an official history, not a scholarly treatise. And that during the time of the Great Purges of 1934-1938. But its a good description of how the international role played by the October Revolution was viewed by the Soviet Communists at the time of the revolution and afterward.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

(17) October Revolution: Aftermath of war and civil war

Returning again to the October Revolution as a part of the First World War, the devastation left by the world war and the civil war that was quickly followed by the civil war that lasted until 1921, even into 1922 in east Siberia, left incredible damage behind.

As Jerry Hough and Merle Fainsod put it How the Soviet Union Is Governed (1979):
... the real test of the Bolsheviks came not in November [1917, New Style] but in the coming three years. They had to demonstrate an ability to rule that no one expected this group of fractious extremists to have; they had to build an army from a war-weary population after having promised peace; that had to win a Civil War while extracting grain by force from peasants in the countryside, while attempting to reinstitute authority relations in the army and the factory, and while ending the wildly free politics of 1917 and emasculating the soviets in whose name they came to power. It was in 1917-1921 that the Bolshevik revolution was really won. [p. 73]


The magnitude of the human cost can be seen, in one of many ways, by the effect on children. Michael Sontheimer writes („Das Kollektiv erziehen" Russland: Vom Zarenreich zur Weltmacht/Spiegel Geschichte 6:2016):
Nach Krieg und Bürgerkrieg gab es in der Sowjetunion bis zu neun Millionen heimatlose Kinder und Jugendliche, die in furchtbarem Elend zu überleben versuchten, als Bettler, Diebe oder Prostituierte; traumatisierte Kinder, von denen manche nicht einmal ihren Namen kannten.

[After war and civil war, in the Soviet Union there up up to nine million homeless children and young people who tried to survive in terrible misery as beggars, thieves or prostitutes; traumatized children, many of whom didn't even know their names.]
The civil war was widespread. And though the seizure of power in Petrograd on October 25-26 was relatively bloodless, the following three years were a bloodbath. Ralf Zerback writes ("Land in Blut und Feuer" Russland: Vom Zarenreich zur Weltmacht/Spiegel Geschichte 6:2016):
Immer wieder rennen die Weißen gegen die Roten an, umkreisen deren Herrschaftszone. Immer wieder ziehen Truppen beider Seiten durch dieselben Dörfer, rauben und morden. Moderne Waffen wie Artillerie und Maschinengewehre steigern die Todesraten. Allein die Zahl der zivilen Opfer in dem dreijährigen Blutvergießen wird auf acht Millionen geschätzt. Alles ist Front, alles Krieg, der Kampf gegen den äußeren Feind vermengt sich mit dem gegen den inneren.

[Again and again, the Whites {counterrevolutionary forces} rushed against the Reds, encircling their zone of control. Again and again, the troops of both sides moved through the same villages, robbing and murdering. Modern weapons like artillery and machine guns drove up the death rate. The number of civil victims in the three-year bloodbath is estimated at eight million. Everything is the front, everything war, the fight against the outer enemy commingled with that against the inner.]

Counting bodies is always grim business, even at the distance of a century in the history books. One can easily find hardline anti-Russian and anti-Communist claims that seem to claim everyone who died in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1945 of all causes as victims of Communist dictatorship. So numbers of casualties reported for the USSR need to be viewed carefully and critically for this whole period. There are, sadly, no shortage of bodies to found as the results of internal state actions.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Why Democrats lose (one big reason among several)

I haven't been following the Virginia Governor's race closely. But this PBS report from yesterday sounds like yet another example of the intensity gap. The Democratic Ralph Northam got criticism for calling Trump a "narcissistic maniac" in an ad. Criticism is understandable, because only about 2/3 of the public would recognize that as an obvious statement of fact. So he ran a new ad saying, "As a doctor, nobody ever asks if I'm a Democrat or Republican. They just want my help. So if Donald Trump is helping Virginia, I'll work with him." Awesome. Why Trump is on the minds of Virginia voters picking a governor PBS Newshour 11/03/2017:



And a Latino group ran an ad suggesting that the Republican candidate Ed Gillespie was supporte by white supremacist a******s. So Ed Gillespie the Republican candidate fell all over himself denouncing white supremacists and segregationist voter suppression and ... Oh, wait. That was on Bizzaro World.

Here on Earth Prime, Northam scrambled to say how badly he wanted to crack down on these darkie immigrants and would never allow sanctuary cities in Virginia. Which he had previously supported. So the Latino group stopped supporting him. Can you believe that? They decided they couldn't support a candidate just because he spit in their faces over their most urgent issues?! Utopian hippies, clearly.

It reminds me of the ACORN fiasco, where the Democrats folded to Republican criticism of the voter registration group based on the fraudulent propaganda videos that James O'Keefe put together.

One of the two major parties is just more interested in winning elections than the other one.

Maybe if the corporate Dems can purge all the Sanders supporters from the party, this approach will start working. I mean, they don't have any place else to go, right? It's not like the Democrats have to care about their voting base, they just need to pander to conservative white people, obviously! What could go wrong?

Andrew Sullivan in How the Democrats Are Failing the Resistance New York 11/03/2017, whose left-liberal leanings always have to be viewed with a skeptical eye, rights about the Governor's race. And he blames the Latino hippies for the problem in more-or-less sneering terms:
Enter the resurgent activist left. Yes, the party needs more direct aggression and energy and left-populism. But the Latino Victory Fund, worried about low Latino enthusiasm, put out an ad last week that shows how much of the energy in the party is now dominated by the fight against “white supremacy.” And so the LVF ad would give your average Vox or Coates reader an intersectional orgasm - while dooming the party on the ground. [my emphasis]
Let's pause for a brief moment to reflect on how far right the political "center" has moved when a well-known writer can assume his audience will take it for granted that explicitly criticizing white supremacists has "doomed the [Democratic] party on the ground." [my emphasis]
It depicts a white man in dark glasses in a pickup truck wth Gillespie and tea party bumper stickers, brandishing a Confederate flag, and driving aggressively through a suburban neighborhood, terrifying young Latino and Muslim kids, and forcing them into a back alley. Just as this Republican terrorist seems about to murder the children, the scene changes and we realize that this was all a nightmare for the kids. And they wake up. This, the ad hammers home, is what the “American dream” means for the GOP. Cue to scenes from Charlottesville.

The ad was aimed at Latino voters. But, of course, it went viral, instantly erasing Northam’s relatively clean image, and tripling contributions to Gillespie’s campaign overnight. It helped cement the Trump base’s support for Gillespie. [my emphasis]
It's always the fault of the hippies and those people that Democrats lose, amirite?
It seemed to imply that every Virginia Republican is a terrorizing white supremacist, and makes the fatal Clinton mistake of attacking a swath of actual voters. And, of course, it was about immigration. The GOP are on the smart side of this issue; the Democrats still don’t have a clue. [my emphasis]
Excuse me while I whack my head against the wall ...
In one final flailing, Northam first distanced himself from the ad, and then was shown to have helped finance it. Then the GOP managed to ambush him on the bogus “sanctuary city” issue. [Bogus??] In the closing stages of the campaign, he said he would now veto any attempt to establish such a law-free enclave, a position he had once voted against. Even now, it appears, the Democrats have no practiced response to a GOP attack on this question. They don’t want to offend Latinos, and they don’t want to alienate whites. So they twist in the populist wind. Are they capable of focusing on economic populism and a defense of the working classes against GOP plutocracy? At this point, the answer is no. [my emphasis]
On a quick reading, this might sound like Sullivan actually thinks "economic populism" is a good thing. Well, at least as long as he can use it as a throwaway phrase to trash the idea of defending civil rights. But don't expect to see Andrew Sullivan calling to "expropriate the expropriators" anytime soon.

Also, didn't he just say in the previous sentence that it's a bad thing for the Democrats to "twist in the populist wind"? And, no, I don't know what that means, either.

Iran, Russia, Syria, Iraq

Al-Monitor has this report from Maxim Suchkov on Iran's main leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had a summit this past week with Vladimir Putin in Tehran, along with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s Khamenei has three main messages for Putin at summit 11/03/2017. It summarizes three main points that Suchkov describes as the political message from Khamenei to Putin:
First, Iranians don’t see the war in Syria as being over or even coming to end. This is an important point, given the Russian military’s repeated statements that its operation in Syria is “coming to a conclusion” and the rumors that Russian air forces in the country will soon begin a gradual drawdown. ...

A drawdown would suggest Moscow would shift focus from military operations to finding a political settlement in Syria. Commenting on the Kommersant news, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied any concrete decision has been made on a drawdown and said, “The last word rests with the commander-in-chief.”

Second, Khamenei wants Putin to stay alert regarding the United States. On one hand, that reflects Tehran’s concern over the possibility of a deal between Moscow and Washington that would be detrimental to Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, it alludes to Iran’s own readiness for a worst-case scenario in which the United States can come up with policies obstructing — militarily or politically — Russian and Iranian gains. ...

... Khamenei's third message to Putin [is]: Russia and Iran need to deepen their cooperation at other levels. Khamenei praised Putin for being a “strong and responsible leader” and said Russia is a country “with which you can have dialogue and cooperation.” The assessment certainly doesn’t mean Khamenei and the rest of the Iranian leadership aren’t wary of Moscow’s military deals with the Saudis and Turks, its energy interests in Iraqi Kurdistan and its willingness to maintain coordination with Israel and the United States. Yet there seems to be a broader understanding in Iran and Russia that befriending each other on the basis of anti-Americanism doesn’t make for a strategic partnership. [my emphasis]
Renad Mansour of Chatham House warns us to be cautious about propaganda claims that Iran is running the show in Iraq, whose regime, originally installed by the US invasion of Iraq and still supported by US troops, is clearly pro-Iranian, which is something very different than being dominated by Iran. Mansour writes (Iraq Is Not Iran’s Puppet New York Times 11/02/2017):

When it comes to Iran in Iraq, emotion fogs reality, limiting understanding in Washington. Yet for Iran, when it comes to the United States in the Middle East, pragmatism guides policy, translating to more successes.

For the Iraqi government, Iran is a foreign actor just like the United States is. Iraqi leaders view Iranian officials in their country — including Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force — as international military advises, just as they view American military advisers. Both are first looking out for their country’s national interests. The Iraqi government does not assign any ethical or moral superiority to one over the other, and it still needs both.


(16) October Revolution: More on the nationalities

Rex Wade in The Russian Revolution, 1917 (2017 edition) gives this overview of the conflict among nationalities and different versions of nationalism during the civil war that is generally considered a part of the revolution marked by the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917:
The “nationality question,” as it was called, was complex. The term encompassed a large and diverse population: more than 100 different ethnicities (including about twenty major nationalities) of widely differing size, culture, language, beliefs, and economic development. Moreover, the sense of nationality varied widely. At one extreme were individuals, especially urban and educated, who were basically Russified and had left their ethnic origins largely behind, or who for ideological reasons (Marxism especially) rejected nationalism. In contrast were those, also largely urban and educated, who were strongly nationalist and demanded autonomy or independence. Yet a third extreme variant, perhaps largest of all, were rural populations who identified with their local region or clan and had only a weak sense of being “Ukrainian,” “Kazakh,” or other nationality (although they were perhaps distinctly aware of not being Russian). In between stood people of every gradation of national identity. Moreover, some ethnic groups had a strong sense of national identity while others had little. This had political implications. There were important differences, as far as political mobilization was concerned, among simple ethnic identity (a fundamental identity as Chechen or Latvian based on local custom, language and daily culture), national consciousness (a more complex political concept deliberately fostered by national elites and patriots), and nationalism (an ideology arguing for the establishment of some kind of nationality-based state). [my emphasis]
After the February Revolution, Ukrainian nationalists set up a ruling body called the Ukrainian Central Rada, which Wade explains whose political character reflected "a fusion of nationalism and moderate socialism." The Rada's demands in those early months was for an autonomous Ukraine within a Russia federal structure. And among the nationalists as well, the general approach was to advocate a form of federalism. But the national factor multiplied the complications of the revolutionary process.

"We Don't Want to Fight, But We'll Defend the Soviets" (1922)

And Wade describes how intermixed the populations of Ukraine were:
... the significant non-Ukrainian population – 20–25 percent – ... dominated the cities and government, the professions and commerce. Russians and Jews were the most important in a non-Ukrainian minority population that included Poles, Germans, Tatars, Greeks and others. They were concentrated in the cities, while Ukrainians were primarily rural and peasant. In Kiev, the presumed capital of Ukraine and where most of the Ukrainian congresses and organizations met, Ukrainians made up only 16.4 percent of the civilian population in 1917. Of the ten largest cities of Ukraine, only one had a Ukrainian majority, and in six of the ten Ukrainians were only the third largest group (after Russians and Jews). These urban, non-Ukrainian elements also were more likely to be literate, well educated and politically engaged than were the predominantly rural Ukrainian population. [my emphasis]
In the couple of months after the October Revolution, the Ukrainian nationalists pushed hard for national independence, despite the political differences among its diverse population.

Finland had a more developed nationalist movement, which began focused efforts for independence immediately after the February Revolution. By December, Finland declared its independence, which the new Bolshevik government in Petrograd recognized. But a civil war developed early in 1918 in Finland between Red and White forces, with the Germans intervening at one point on the side of the Whites. The Whites had successfully suppressed their Communist opponents by May.

In the Baltics, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 transferred formal control of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Russia to Germany. Latvia became the scene of protracted conflict between Reds and Whites, with continuing intervention by German troops and "volunteers," aka, the Freikorps. By the end of 1919, a non-Communist government had established control and German forces had been cleared out of Latvia. A peace treaty with the Soviet Union in August 1920 recognized Latvian independence.

In Estonia, the Red Army attempted to take control in late 1918. But an Allied-backed government with troops from Finland and naval assistance from Britain pushed the Soviet forces back in early 1919. A Soviet government was established in Lituania in the first half of 1919 but was driven out by conservative forces backed by Poland and the Western Allies.

Red Army recruitment poster

Then there were various Muslim groups in the Russian Empire, 90% of them of the Turkic ethnicity. Wade describes this population at the time of the revolution:
Most of the Muslim population was distributed in three major blocks: the Central Asians (modern Tadzhiks, Turkmen, Kirghiz, Uzbeks,Kazakhs); the Azeri Turk (Azerbaijanid) population of Transcaucasia; and the Tatars of the Volga River, Ural Mountains and Crimean regions. The first two groups lived in reasonably compact population regions, but the third was more scattered geographically and more interspersed with Russians. Muslims were a population united by a common religion but divided in many ways: by spoken language, history, geography, social-cultural characteristics, social-economic class, ethnicity and a sense of being different peoples. In many areas, especially Central Asia, identities were not well fixed in modern nationality terms, and many names were in use for various groups (Sarts, for example) that are no longer used. Moreover, many specific local issues drove the revolution in the different Muslim areas.
In the Muslim areas during the revolutions of 1917, along with the secular political ideologies, Islamic modernizers were contending with more conservative traditionalists for hegemony, as well. Wade observes of this period in Muslim areas:
All generalizations about people acting on the basis of class, ethnicity or religion become difficult, especially about their turning those identities into political action. Some Muslims joined local branches of the national political parties – Kadet, Bolshevik, SR, Menshevik – but most identified with Muslim or nationality-based parties of various social and political orientations. A unified Islamic movement failed to develop.
And if those weren't sufficient complications, Georgia and Armenia presented special challenges of their own. Violent, even genocidal Ottoman Turkish hostility toward Armenians strongly inclined Armenians in the Russian Empire toward a strong link to the central government, including after the October Revolution.

Friday, November 03, 2017

(15) October Revolution: scope of the civil war

The Treaty of Breast-Litovsk in March 1918 was concluded at Lenin's insistence on peace. That insistence was partially political, because anger at the continuation of the war had been a major reason for the fall of the Czar's government in 1917 and then Kerensky's government later that year.


It was also plain realism. The Russian army had largely collapsed. They couldn't maintain the resistance against the German forces. It was a plain matter of national interest to cut their losses in a war that was clearly lost. The cost was high (Ralf Zerback, "Land in Blut and Feuer" Russland: Vom Zarenreich zur Weltmach/Spiegel Geschichte 6:2016):

Die sowjetische Regierung schließt im März 1918 den erniedrigenden Frieden von Brest-Litowsk - mit dem Regime des kaiserlichen Deutschland. Es sind verfreundete Halbverbündete, ein Teil der Bolschewiki spricht von einem „unverschämten Frieden". Russland verzichtet auf Finnland, das Baltikum, Polen und die Ukraine - und damit auf ein Viertel der Bevölkerung, ein Drittel der Textilindustrie, drei Viertel der Eisen- und Kohleproduktion. Lenin will Frieden um jeden Preis, weil er ihn versprochen hat und weil die Armee auseinandergelaufen ist.

[The Soviet government concluded the humiliating Peace of Brest-Litovsk in March, 1918 - with the regime of Imperial Germany. They are friendly half-allies, a portion of the Bolsheviks talk about a "shameless peace." Russia gave up Finland, the Baltics, Poland, and the Ukraine - and thereby a fourth of the population, a third of the textile industry, three quarters of the iron and coal production. Lenin wants peace at any price, because he had promised it and because the army has come apart.]

Zerback notes that 14 different foreign powers were intervening in the former Russian Empire during the civil war, including five thousand Americans along with some French and British troops. The opposition included 20 regional governments, who were unable to ever unite into a single command.

Given that the Russian population was exhausted by three years of war in 1917, it is remarkable that the Communist government was able to keep the war effort going to victory in the civil war. How they did it involved a combination of persuasion, inspiration and coercion. It included a Red Terror, which in that context meant giving a great deal of leeway for arrests and punishments to the government, on the model of the Terror during the French Revolution. "Terrorism" today generally refers to attacks on civilian noncombatants but the older meaning of state terror was much more familiar a century ago.


Trotsky, then the head of the Red Army, published a tract in 1920 called Terrorism and Communism, a polemic against a leading German Social Democrat, Karl Kautsky, who was criticizing the Soviet government for dictatorial methods. Trotsky:

The man who repudiates terrorism in principle – i.e., repudiates measures of suppression and intimidation towards determined and armed counter-revolution, must reject all idea of the political supremacy of the working class and its revolutionary dictatorship. The man who repudiates the dictatorship of the proletariat repudiates the Socialist revolution, and digs the grave of Socialism. ...

If he wishes to add that the imperialist war, which broke out and continued for four years, in spite of democracy, brought about a degradation of morals and accustomed men to violent methods and action, and completely stripped the bourgeoisie of the last vestige of awkwardness in ordering the destruction of masses of humanity – here also he will be right.

All this is true on the face of it. But one has to struggle in real conditions. The contending forces are not proletarian and bourgeois manikins produced in the retort of Wagner-Kautsky, but a real proletariat against a real bourgeoisie, as they have emerged from the last imperialist slaughter.
Trotsky was engaging in a polemic within the socialist movement in the common vocabulary of that movement at the time. But he was making an argument that, in different terms, almost any governing party fighting for its government's survival in the middle of a civil war against both foreign and domestic enemies would make, that martial law or emergency measures would be justified. For that matter, any government in peacetime would use "suppression and intimidation towards determined and armed" opposition forces engaged in anti-government violence or imminent preparation for it.

That doesn't exhaust the very important question about the effect that the desperate circumstances and avowedly dictatorial measures to which the Communist government resorted immediately after the revolution and during the civil war had on the nature of the later peacetime government and, a decade and a half later, on the Great Purge. Such measures don't take place only in the abstract, but with very specific actions and decisions. The actions of the national police, the Cheka, during that time provide many specific targets for criticism. (The Cheka is usually referred to as the "secret police," though its existence was hardly secret.)