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Insulting Islam: an Encore for Charlie Hebdo


Photograph Source: Pk4wp – CC BY-SA 4.0

In mid-October 2020 a French schoolteacher, 47-year-old Samuel Paty, decided to show his Freedom of Speech class cartoons demeaning Islam’s founding prophet, Mohammed. The cartoons were the same ones originally published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) in 2014-2015. At that time, the magazine’s actions resulted in the murder of twelve of its staff, including the editor, Stephane Charbonnier. The murders were committed by Muslim extremists associated with al-Qaeda. Samuel Paty’s fate turned out to be similar. Shortly after having shown the caricatures of the founder of Islam, the teacher was murdered by an 18-year-old Muslim immigrant. Other attacks have followed.

In all of these cases, the killings were provoked as well as indefensible. The cartoons in question are all too easy to interpret as gratuitous insults against Islam and therefore against the almost 9% of the French population that are Muslim. Nonetheless, murder is incompatible with stable society. The latter being prima facie true, the next question is, What alternatives were available to those who were/are disgusted by the Charlie Hebdo caricatures? Lawsuits for defamation have been repeatedly filed. Some are still ongoing. However, to date, none have stopped the magazine’s demeaning ways. Well-organized public protests combined with steady political pressure might work in the long run. It was perhaps because such an effort was not forthcoming, at least not consistently, that action defaulted to emotionally driven individual fanatics.

By the way, Charlie Hebdo, with its own brand of fanaticism, is what you might call an equal opportunity defamer. Topics ranging from the Catholic Church to Italians killed in earthquakes have been depicted in distasteful, sometimes semi-pornographic fashion. As it stands, the right to publish gratuitously insulting cartoons is not only legal in France but, because of all the related violence, also now defended as an important expression of French national culture. To make this point clear, French officials have announced the publication of a booklet to include the Charlie Hebdo images. This will be “handed out to high school students as a commitment to defend the values of the Republic.”

A Trap 

The value referred to in the booklet is freedom of expression. As Charbonnier said in a 2012 interview, “We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat.” Of course, it is now obvious that Charbonnier’s ardent determination to avoid a rodent’s fate, and his nation’s embrace of the man’s grossness as a symbol of free speech, has led France into a trap. Here is how the Sorbonne Professor Pierre-Henri Tavoillot puts it: “what is at stake now is France’s laicite—the secularism that underlies its culture. If the nation compromises on laicite in this instance, this cultural principle may well unravel.” Refusal to consider a balanced way out of the situation paints the French into a corner while explicitly tying the culture to often semi-pornographic cartoons.

The trap has many other dimensions. French enthusiasm for Charlie Hebdo has fueled Islamophobia and led others to use the situation to argue for the restriction of civil rights. France’s interior minister believes that the country is “at war against an enemy who is both inside and outside.” While it is true that the country’s 5.7 million Muslims (the highest number in any Western country) are increasingly alienated and fearful, the vast majority are peaceful. Yet they all have now been placed under suspicion of being terrorists. Now, the mayor of Nice is calling for a “modification of the Constitution” so that the nation can “properly wage war against Islamic extremists.” President Macron has announced a widespread crackdown on “Islamist individuals and organizations.” This includes closing French Muslim civil rights organizations and Arabic language schools.

The whole affair has also brought France into conflict with Muslim populations and governments around the world. Presently, the French and Turkish governments are now trading insults. In Bangladesh, 40,000 people took part in an anti-French demonstration and called for the boycott of French goods. French goods were removed from shelves in shops in Qatar and Kuwait.


The French will tell you that their take on free expression was born in violence: in “eradicating the power of the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church” during the French Revolution. Later, a 1905 French law made faith a strictly private matter and secularism the rule for the public sphere. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement. However, over the years the French have generally lost common sense relative to the subject and failed to be consistent in their approach to religion. On the one hand, laicite has caused some French men and women to see religion as a belief system that need not be taken seriously. Criticism of religion is seen as a “dear right.” On the other hand, recent history has led French governments to be very sensitive to even the slightest suggestion of anti-Semitism (which is illegal in France). Except in this case, the stipulation that one should not be critical of someone simply because he is observant is often forgotten.

Against this backdrop, French Muslims, the  most religious of French residents, have been held at arm’s length. Those who retain their traditional dress and ways stand out as outsiders and assimilation has not been made easy even for those Muslims who desire it.

The French will also tell you that the art of caricature “is an old tradition that is part of our democracy.” French Muslims make the argument that “there should be limits to offensive satire [in the form of demeaning caricature] when it comes to religious beliefs.” They say that this is so because such satire “fuels extremism.” For millions of French Muslims, this suggests that “cartoons putting a prophet who is fundamental to millions of believers in suggestive and degrading postures” should not fall within the right to be satirical.

One can, of course, argue the issue of censorship. Free speech/expression rights are explicitly meant to protect speech we may not approve of. On the other hand, all societies impose some limits on speech—you can’t cry fire in a crowded theater. Who decides when, or if, there should be a legitimate restriction to free speech/expression? How about when there is a present atmosphere that leads to multiple murder and the breakdown of otherwise friendly foreign relations? Under such circumstances, can such competing issues be finessed by the application of common sense? The flamboyant display of such “art” as practiced by Charlie Hebdo, much less its presentation as a cornerstone of French culture, might be such a case.


How many cultures make rudeness a symbol of cultural excellence? It doesn’t seem to be a common practice. Yet, the French have done so in this case. It has gotten them nothing but trouble at home and abroad.

The problem with the present French position is that it gives wide latitude to people who care little or nothing for cultural awareness. Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, seemed uninterested in the real cultural consequences of his personal practice of freedom. In truth, he was an extremist who persisted on insulting a religion of 1.8 billion adherents, the vast majority of whom are peaceful folks. As he knew no bounds to his freedom to be brutally insulting, so his behavior activated a small number of Muslim extremists willing to be even more brutal than Charbonnier. This led to his violent death. In death he has become a French cultural icon—in total disregard of the extremist nature of his behavior and the counter-extremism it triggered.

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Guardian-Friendly Omissions – ‘This Land’

In his latest book, ‘This Land – The Story of a Movement’ (Penguin, ebook version, 2020), the Guardian’s Owen Jones charts the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn.

Jones depicts Corbyn as a ‘scruffy,’ (p.8), ‘unkempt’ (p.50), thoroughly shambolic backbench MP, ‘the most unlikely’ (p.50) of contenders for the Labour leadership. In May 2015, Corbyn reluctantly dipped his toe in the water of the leadership contest, saying: ‘You better make fucking sure I don’t get elected’ (p.54), only to be swept away on a tide of popular support.

As this suggests, Jones argues that while Corbyn was indeed relentlessly savaged by forces both inside and outside the Labour Party – including the ‘mainstream’ media, with ‘profound hostility’ from ‘the publicly funded, professedly impartial’ BBC (p.68) – he was out of his depth, his team making constant, massive mistakes from which all progressives must learn. It is not at all inevitable, says Jones, that future leftist movements need suffer the same fate.  

Much of this analysis is interesting and useful; Jones interviewed 170 insiders closest to the action, ‘people at the top of the Labour Party right down to grassroots activists’, who supply important insights on key events.

Jones portrays himself as someone who fundamentally agrees with much that motivated Corbyn, emphasising that his disagreement lies in tactics and strategy. But, once again, we note a remarkable pattern of omissions in the work of Jones, an ostensibly outspoken, unconstrained leftist, and by his serious misreading of the antisemitism furore that engulfed Corbyn.

Jones recognises that people loved Corbyn because, unusually for a UK politician, he was made of flesh rather than PR plastic; he told the truth:

‘While other contenders refused to give direct answers to questions, and were caught squirming between their principles and their political compromises, he spoke with immediacy – sometimes rambling, always authentic, always passionate.’ (p.57)

Ironically, Jones does plenty of his own ‘squirming’ between ‘principles’ and ‘political compromises’ as he airbrushes out of existence facts, views and voices that are consistently and conspicuously Guardian-unfriendly. He writes:

‘Corbynism… was woven together from many disparate strands: from people who marched against the Iraq war in 2003’ to people hit by the ‘trebling of college tuition fees in 2010’ and ‘the millions more frightened by a looming climate emergency’. (p.10)

Above all, of course, ‘Corbyn’s entire career had been devoted to foreign affairs’. (p.29) Andrew Murray of the union, Unite commented: ‘Corbyn was very prominent in the anti-war movement.’ (p.33)

Thus, deep popular outrage at the Iraq war is key in understanding Corbyn’s popularity. And yet, in discussing this central feature of the movement, Jones makes no mention at all of Julian Assange (or WikiLeaks), of Noam Chomsky, or John Pilger – the most important anti-war voices – exactly as he made no mention of them in his previous book, ‘The Establishment’, published in 2014.

Jones has not mentioned Assange in his Guardian column in the last twelve months. Indeed, his sole substantive mention came in April 2019.

Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, but Jones mentions NATO’s catastrophic, 2011 war on Libya, opposed by Corbyn, once in passing, noting merely that Labour MP Chris Williamson had ‘supported the war in Libya’. (p.251)

Jones’ previous book, ‘The Establishment’, published three years after NATO’s assault, similarly granted ‘Libya’ a single mention, noting that UK voters were ‘Weary of being dragged by their rulers into disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya…’. (Jones, ‘The Establishment – And how they get away with it’, Penguin, ebook version, 2014, p.275. See our discussion.)

The fact that the US-UK assault resulted in mass death, ethnic cleansing, mass displacement for millions of Libyans and the destruction of the entire country was not mentioned in either book.

Elsewhere, Jones has been more forthright. In February 2011, with NATO ‘intervention’ clearly looming, he tweeted:

‘I hope it’s game over for Gaddafi. A savage dictator once tragically embraced by me on left + lately western governments and oil companies.’ (Jones, Twitter, 20 February 2011)

On 20 March 2011, one day after NATO bombing had begun, like someone writing for the ‘Soaraway Sun’, Jones commented:

‘Let’s be clear. Other than a few nutters, we all want Gaddafi overthrown, dead or alive.’ (Jones, ‘The case against bombing Libya’, Left Futures, March 2011)

Similarly, in 2012, Jones reacted to news of the killings of Syrian ministers in a bomb explosion with:

‘Adios, Assad (I hope).’ (Jones, Twitter, 18 July 2012)

After all, Jones tweeted, ‘this is a popular uprising, not arriving on the back of western cruise missiles, tanks and bullets’. (Jones, Twitter, 18 July 2012)

As was very obvious then and indisputable now, Jones was badly mistaken – the West, directly and via regional allies, played a massive role in the violence. The New York Times reported that the US had become embroiled in a dirty war in Syria that constituted ‘one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the C.I.A’, running to ‘more than $1 billion over the life of the program’. (Mark Mazzetti, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt, ‘Behind the sudden death of a $1 billion secret C.I.A. war in Syria’, New York Times, 2 August 2017)

As though tweeting from the NATO playbook, the same Guardian columnist now analysing the peace movement supporting Corbyn, wrote:

‘I’m promoting the overthrow of illegitimate and brutal dictatorships by their own people to establish democracies.’ (Jones, Twitter, 18 July 2012)

In ‘This Land’, Jones mentions Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in famine-stricken Yemen exactly once, again in passing:

‘…Labour MPs refused to back Corbyn’s call for a UN investigation into alleged Saudi war crimes in Yemen’. (p.81)

There is no mention of the UK’s support for these crimes since 2011, no discussion of the horrors the UK has inflicted (See our discussion). The word ‘Yemen’ was unmentioned in Jones’ previous book in 2014. To his credit, he has written several Guardian pieces on the war in Yemen, the most recent in 2018.

Gaza was mentioned once, in passing, in Jones’ previous book and three times, in passing, in ‘This Land’. Our media database search found that, since he joined the Guardian in March 2014, Jones has made three substantive mentions of Gaza, in 2014 (a philosophical piece focusing on ‘How the occupation of Gaza corrupts the occupier’, with few facts about the situation in Gaza) a brief piece here, and one in 2018 (with a single paragraph on Gaza).

‘This Land’ simply ignores the Western propaganda wars on Iran and Venezuela.

Remarkably, while recognising the role of climate fears in the rise of Corbyn and discussing the UK’s ‘Climate Camp’ in the late 2000s, Jones makes no mention of Extinction Rebellion or of Greta Thunberg, both strongly supported by Corbyn, further fuelling popular support for his cause.

There is no mention of the Guardian’s lead role in destroying Corbyn; although, ironically, Jones does celebrate the fact that, ‘I wrote the first pro-Corbyn column to appear in the mainstream media: a Guardian piece’. (p.53)

The silence is unsurprising. In 2017, Jones tweeted:

‘I’m barred from criticising colleagues in my column.’ (Jones, Twitter, 19 November 2017)

He wasn’t joking:

‘Guardian colleagues aren’t supposed to have these public spats…’

Of his own opposition to Corbyn, in the Guardian and elsewhere, Jones writes:

‘Although I voted for him again in 2016, I had a period of disillusionment before the [June 2017] general election – something which still riles his most ardent supporters.’ (p.14)

In fact, the ‘period of disillusionment’ was extensive and began long before the 2017 election. In July 2016, fully one year earlier, Jones wrote:

‘As Jeremy Corbyn is surrounded by cheering crowds, Labour generally, and the left specifically, are teetering on the edge of looming calamity.’

He added:

‘As things stand, all the evidence suggests that Labour — and the left as a whole — is on the cusp of a total disaster. Many of you won’t thank me now. But what will you say when you see the exit poll at the next general election and Labour is set to be wiped out as a political force?’

Similar comments followed in February, March and April 2017. For example:

‘My passionate and sincere view is Jeremy Corbyn should stand down as soon as possible in exchange for another left-wing MP being allowed to stand on for leadership in his place: all to stop both Labour and the left imploding, which is what is currently on the cards.’ (Jones: ‘“I don’t enjoy protesting – I do it because the stakes are so high”’, Evening Standard, 3 February 2017)

Blaming The Victim – The Great, Fake Antisemitism Scandal

Time and again, Jones criticises the Corbyn leadership for failing to deal adequately with antisemitism claims: ‘there was no coherent strategy within the leader’s office on how to tackle claims of antisemitism’. (p.227)

While Jones accepts that there were ‘bad-faith actors opposed to Corbyn’s policies’, his emphasis is focused elsewhere: ‘ultimately there were severe and repeated errors by the leadership, which resulted from those two characteristic failings: a lack of both strategy and emotional intelligence’. (p.254)

Remarkably, Jones concludes that the crisis ‘need never have happened’. (p.254)

This is nonsense. The crisis had to happen because sufficiently powerful forces within the Labour Party and Conservative Party, and across the corporate media ‘spectrum’, were determined to make it happen.

Compare Jones’ account with that of Norman Finkelstein, whose mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Majdanek concentration camp and two slave labour camps. Finkelstein’s father was a survivor of both the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp. In an interview with RT in May, Finkelstein commented:

‘Corbyn, he did not present a threat only to Israel and Israel’s supporters, he posed a threat to the whole British elite. Across the board, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail, they all joined in the new anti-semitism campaign. Now that’s unprecedented – the entire British elite, during this whole completely contrived, fabricated, absurd and obscene assault on this alleged Labour anti-semitism, of which there is exactly zero evidence, zero.’

He added:

‘Yeah, there’s some fringe members of Labour who, you know, play the anti-semitic [interrupted by interviewer]… I read the polls, I read the data – it hovers between six and eight per cent are hardened anti-semites in British society. It’s nothing! Yeah, so there are a few crazies, but there’s no “institutionalised” anti-semitism in the British Labour Party. There’s no threat of anti-semitism in British society. I’ve read all the data, I’ve studied it closely. It just doesn’t exist. It’s all being designed and manipulated… I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, as you know, but this is a conspiracy.’

Jones accepts that ‘the former leadership and the vast majority of Labour’s membership abhor antisemitism’, arguing that the problem lay with a ‘small minority’. (p.254) But Jones does not cite an October 2016 report by the Commons home affairs committee, which found:

‘Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party, and a number of revelations regarding inappropriate social media content, there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.’

And he does not cite a September 2017 report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, which found:

‘Levels of antisemitism among those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, including the far-left, are indistinguishable from those found in the general population… The most antisemitic group on the political spectrum consists of those who identify as very right-wing: the presence of antisemitic attitudes in this group is 2 to 4 times higher compared to the general population.’

Instead, Jones pours scorn on leftists who ‘still were in denial, claiming that the antisemitism crisis had been entirely manufactured by a media “out to get” Corbyn…’ (p.254)

Rational commentators have always accepted that antisemitism exists within the Labour Party. The point is that making that ugly reality a ‘crisis’ specifically for Labour, rather than for other parties and other sectors of society, and above all making it a ‘crisis’ for Corbyn – reviled as a dangerous antisemite – was entirely manufactured.

Jones cites ‘the passionately anti-Corbyn editor of the Jewish Chronicle’, Stephen Pollard, who grotesquely claimed to perceive ‘nudge, nudge’ (p.253) antisemitism in one of Corbyn’s self-evidently anti-capitalist critiques. Such outlandish claims, Jones notes, only encouraged leftists to believe the whole furore was a smear campaign:

‘It was a vicious circle, and it turned to nobody’s benefit – least of all Corbyn’s, while causing more hurt and distress to Jewish people.’ (p.253, our emphasis)

But this is absurd. Quite obviously, the smear campaign was to the very real benefit of the political and media forces trying to crush Corbyn’s version of socialism.

The claims targeting Corbyn were fake and they depended on ignoring as non-existent a mountain of evidence indicating that Corbyn is a passionate, committed and very active anti-racist. What is so outrageous is that this was accepted by essentially everyone before Corbyn stood for the leadership in 2015. As Jones comments:

‘Anti-racism is core to Corbyn’s sense of identity. He believes, proudly, that he has fought oppression all his life, so being labelled a racist was a cause of profound personal trauma to him.’ (p.228)

Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, commented on the impact of the smear campaign:

‘This was a man who was beyond broken-hearted, that, as a proud antiracist campaigner, he was being accused of racism. So he was paralysed… It wasn’t true – no one will convince me that he has an antisemitic bone in his body…’ (p.242)

Genuine racists are not left ‘beyond broken-hearted’ by claims that they are racist. They are not ‘paralysed’ by a sense of injustice and grief.  

Jones comments on Corbyn: ‘no one close to him believes for a moment that he would ever willingly associate with a Holocaust denier’. (p.222) And Corbyn ‘could point to an extensive record opposing antisemitism and showing pro-Jewish solidarity’ (p.221). Jones lists some of Corbyn’s efforts in this regard: helping to organise a counter-mobilisation to a demonstration by National Front fascists in the so-called Battle of Wood Green in 1977; taking part in a campaign to save a Jewish cemetery from being sold off to property developers in 1987, calling on the British government to settle Yemeni Jewish refugees in 2010.

Before the sheer intensity of propaganda caused most commentators to find truth in lies, Corbyn’s deep-rooted opposition to racism was simply unquestioned. Chris Mullin, who did not vote for Corbyn to either become or remain leader, commented:

‘I’ve always liked him as long as I’ve known him. He’s a thoroughly decent human being, almost a saintly man.’ (p.30)

As Jones writes of Corbyn at the time he stood for the leadership in 2015:

‘Corbyn had no personal enemies. Everyone liked him. Relentlessly cheerful, endlessly generous with his opponents, he exuded integrity.’ (pp.50-51)

Despite this, Jones says of the antisemitism crisis:

‘The damage to Corbyn’s Labour was grievous. The crisis led to months of media coverage.’ (p.254)

In fact, the media coverage was the crisis! It was this real crisis that was the cause of the ‘crisis’. The antisemitism ‘crisis’ was just one more fabrication by an awesomely corrupt and immoral media system willing to throw, not just the kitchen sink, but – God help us! – Nazi gas chambers at Corbyn.

The key to understanding the anti-semitism ‘scandal’ was explained by Jones himself:

‘Anybody who knows anything about the British press knows that it is almost unique in the Western world for its level of commitment to aggressively defending and furthering right-wing partisan politics… the media onslaught that greeted his [Corbyn’s] leadership win in 2015 was as predictable as it was unrelentingly hostile.’ (p.67)

Jones lists only a few of the endlessly fabricated stories used to smear Corbyn: he supposedly planned to ‘abolish’ the army, refused to bow his head on Remembrance Day, danced happily on Remembrance Day, didn’t sing the national anthem loudly enough, and so on. The London School of Economics reported in 2016:

‘the British press systematically delegitimised Jeremy Corbyn as a political leader’ through a ‘process of vilification that went beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy’. (p.68)

Corbyn’s great anti-semitism ‘scandal’ was a non-story, a fabricated non-event, a Soviet-style propaganda smear. Sufficient numbers of people wanted it to be true because they wanted to be rid of Corbyn. Everyone else bowed their heads to avoid being subject to the same career-destroying smears.

Jones often mentions Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite Union, in ‘This Land’. McCluskey commented in the New Statesman last week on Corbyn’s press chief Seumas Milne and chief of staff Karie Murphy:

‘Having given a brilliant and detailed polemic of the history of anti-Semitism, he [Jones] veers away to lay blame at the [door of] Milne and Murphy, based on a distorted view of what it was like trying to deal with the constant daily attacks.

‘When you are in a war – and be under no illusion, from day one of his leadership, Corbyn was subjected to an internal and external war – you develop methods of defence and attack that change by necessity almost on a daily, if not hourly basis.  Being in your living room, observing with a typewriter, is a damn sight easier than being in the ditches on the front line, trying to dodge bullets flying at you from all angles, especially from your own side.’

Establishment forces were out to destroy Corbyn with antisemitism, or whatever else they could think of, no matter what he did, how he replied. And it worked. The incompetence of Corbyn’s team may have made things worse, but the truth that matters is that a form of ruthless fascism arose out of British society to crush an attempt to create a more democratic politics.

Needless to say, Jones has not one word to say about the lead role of his employer, the Guardian, in the antisemitism smear campaign.


Why do we focus so intensely on popular progressives like Owen Jones, George Monbiot and loveable, NATO-loving loon Paul Mason?

The reason is that they breathe life into the faded dream that progressive change can be achieved by working within and for profit-maximising corporations that are precisely the cause of so many of our crises. Even the best journalists cannot tell the truth within these undemocratic systems of top-down power. As Jones freely admits, they have to compromise, to self-censor. Guardian colleagues may not be criticised! Ultimately, they have to compromise in ways that allow the state-corporate status quo to thunder on.

Our most celebrated public radicals – almost all of them made famous by corporate media – function as dissident vaccines that inoculate the public against a pandemic of authentic dissent.

Corporate media are careful to incorporate a tiny bit of progressive poison, so that we all hang around for a whole lot of propaganda-drenched news and commentary, and a perma-tsunami of unanswered corporate advertising persuading us that status consumption, status production and paper-thin concern for the problems of our world are all there is.

Ultimately, corporate dissidents are the final nail in the corporate coffin, normalising the blind, patently doomed rush to disaster called ‘business as usual.’


Note From The Editors:

Our work is crucially dependent on our ability to search media databases. If any academics supporting our work are able to donate access to a ProQuest or LexisNexis account, we would be extremely grateful. Please contact us at:

Posted in Literature, Politics, UKComments Off on Guardian-Friendly Omissions – ‘This Land’

I Found Myself in Palestine

I Found Myself in Palestine

Book Editor(s) :Nora Lester MuradPublished Date :April 2020Publisher :Olive Branch Press (Imprint of Interlink Publishing)Paperback :174 pagesISBN-13 :9781623719159

Ramona Wadi walzerscent

It is rare that we come across writings of how people identify with Palestine. Zionist colonisation has created both a displaced population and a contradiction in terms of affinity and belonging. I Found Myself in Palestine (Olive Branch Press, 2020) is a collection of narratives that explores the concept of being a foreigner in relation to Palestine, juxtaposed against the creation of the Palestinian people depicted as foreigners in their own land, as far as Israel’s colonial narrative is concerned.

For Palestinians, the concept of foreignness has different meanings. As Mariam Barghouti tells us, settler colonists are the foreigners who participate in the theft of Palestine and, in turn, create foreigners out of Palestinians through displacement. There are also the foreigners who engage with the Palestinian people, as well as the “professional internationals who come here and build careers at the cost of our struggle.”

The book brings together a collection of stories from people whose lives are intertwined with those of the Palestinian people in various ways. In her introduction to the book, its editor Nora Lester Murad explains, “Palestinians are an exiled community but the writers featured in this collection are not.” With this concept in mind, Murad, herself an American married to a Palestinian, elaborates on how the collection of first-hand narratives exposed foreigners to Palestinians, “to become part of the Palestinian community and be changed by it.”

INTERVIEW: My Beit Daras, my Nakba, two Palestinian intellectuals reminiscing about their destroyed village

Different experiences are narrated in this book. The social traditions and obligations of becoming part of a Palestinian family are cherished by some. For other foreigners marrying into Palestinian families, the traditions are perceived as stifling and contradict with the culture of another’s homeland. “Tradition and culture are connected to social pressure,” says Corina Mamani, from Bolivia, who has lived in Palestine for 25 years.

For Samira Safadi, a German woman of Palestinian descent, identifying with Palestine and being Palestinian happened over a long period of time. “I just can’t say I’m Palestinian when I don’t feel I am,” she explains during a narrated conversation with a Palestinian who perceives her as “denying all Palestinians in exile” through her statement. For Safadi, it was not the inherited culture that promoted identification, but rather her experience of living in Palestine and ruminating about this period away from Palestine, in Bulgaria. “Living in Palestine has meaning now. It means sumud – resistance.”

Nakba Day 1948 - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Nakba Day 1948 – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

A totally opposite experience of experiencing Palestine from exile is given by Chilean Palestinian Nadia Hasan, whose quest to return to her homeland following an experience at university gives meaning to the concept of “return”. After many tribulations, including refusal of entry by Israel and the breakdown of her marriage to a Palestinian man who preferred to stay in Chile, Hasan managed to make her home in Palestine. Particularly telling is her recollection of her former husband’s statement, “You only loved Palestine, and I was Palestine for you.”

At other times, the Palestinian societal traditions and expectations emphasise foreignness, as in the case of Zeena, a Sudanese woman married to a widower from the US whose late wife was a Palestinian woman. Yet in her professional role at a cancer clinic, she says, “They see a caregiver, a woman, a fellow mother who feels their pain.”

Other foreigners’ perspectives and experiences of Palestine emanate from roles in diplomacy, activism and humanitarian endeavours. Andrew Karney, who worked as a UN teacher in Palestine, ruminates, “I have been welcomed to feel ‘at home’ by those who are not allowed to feel at home in their own homes.”

For people who have never set foot in Palestine, and whose knowledge rests mainly on news and analysis, it is easy to construct a limited concept of who Palestinians are and what Palestine is. It is through narratives such as these that the humanity of a colonised population is made tangible, and Palestinians are no longer perceived solely as an item on the news or diplomatic agenda.

Pam Bailey’s recollections are particularly poignant. “It is easy to love Gaza from the outside, or when the ability to leave is guaranteed,” she admonishes. Truthfully, activism has created narratives and slogans out of Gaza: a heroic people under siege, for example, which they are. Yet, Gaza’s predicament is brought to light in a single question posed to Bailey from someone in the occupied West Bank. “You won’t forget us here, will you?” Is Gaza truthfully remembered beyond its resistance?

Living among Palestinians targeted by Israelis does not automatically offer any elevated status when it comes to Israeli violence, as Carolyn Agner Quffa, from the US, writes. Living in Ramallah, she has experienced Israeli violence in the aftermath of the Intifadas, in which no distinction was made by Israeli soldiers between her and the Palestinian people. This raises other questions regarding her foreign status in Palestine, and how perceptions influence the concept of identity. As a foreigner aligned with the Palestinian cause and integrated within Palestinian society, the boundaries are at times blurred. Trees Zbidat Kosterman, a Dutch woman married to a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, highlights this predicament thus: “The challenge is not only how to explain to others who I am, but also who to be who I am in such a complicated and polarised setting.”

BOOK REVIEW: Palestine as Metaphor

While most of the stories in this book focus upon personal experiences, the political aspect is sometimes part of them, as Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living in Palestine, attests. Having reported from first-hand experience, he explains how the detached editing of some colleagues became “not only irrelevant to me now but constituted evidence that there was something deeply flawed in the mainstream coverage.”

This flaw which Cook speaks about is mainly the refusal to allow Palestinians to articulate their own struggle, as well as stifling voices that are able to carry such testimony due to their presence in Palestine. It is the colonial narrative which Barghouti speaks about with such eloquence and assertion that erases Palestine. Consequently, such narratives that help bridge the gap between Palestinians and the world are necessary and of utmost importance. Understanding Palestine from Palestinians should constitute the first step. Yet it is equally important to share Palestine from a non-Palestinian perspective that respects the need to allow Palestinian voices to flourish, and which asserts identification as opposed to the theft of narratives. This collection of testimonies has accomplished its aim.

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Housing and architecture in the Soviet Union

A variety of housing was built for working people designed to reflect the varied character, climate and context of the vast territories of the USSR.

Katt Cremer

View of Lenin Avenue in Sverdlovsk, 1936, showing the scale of the new town and the incorporation of public spaces lined with trees.

This article is the second of two presentations to the Stalin Society.

This contribution follows from my previous presentation, which looked at the sheer scale of the housing problem that the Bolsheviks faced after taking power in the October Revolution of 1917.

We looked at how the Soviet Union embarked on tackling the problem, taking the task seriously from the first days of the revolution – nationalising large homes, redistributing living space to those in need and embarking on a massive building programme.

We also looked at how conditions in the Soviet Union compared to those in Britain, and how the trajectory in the USSR was one of improving conditions and reducing costs for the workers, while providing healthy cities and towns with access to amenities and culture, while in Britain the housing problem got worse and worse, and has continued to do so.

Having addressed all of that previously, we will in this session be looking in more detail at where, how and what the housing was like across the USSR. We’ll also look at how the character and quality of the housing provision changed just a year after the death of Josef Stalin, creating a legacy for the Soviet Union that is typically used by opponents of socialism as an example of how socialism is ‘bad’, since it only produces ‘monotonous concrete blocks’ for people to live in.

Hopefully, by the end of this contribution, it will be clear that this is not the case, and that it was revisionism that promoted such a bland and standardised approache to architecture.

But more of that later. First let’s look at where housing was being built after the revolution.

Rapid urbanisation

In 1917, Russia was predominantly agricultural. Over the next few decades it rapidly developed its industrial capacity as its urban population rose. Between 1927 and 1939 – ie, in the first 12 years, the urban population of the Soviet Union more than doubled, reaching a total of 56 million.

Leningrad doubled its population, as did Moscow and Kharkov. That of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) and Novosibirsk more than trebled, while Chelyabinsk and Omsk more than quadrupled their populations. These cities were not isolated cases but were entirely typical of the rapid urbanisation that was taking place across the entire Soviet Union.

With this swell of numbers in these existing cities came the requirement for significant house building to accommodate the influx of people. Indeed, they needed not just house building but all the amenities and infrastructure that goes with it, which required a significant level of town planning and organisation.

In order to facilitate this, a comprehensive study of the history of town planning throughout the world was undertaken at the request of the Soviet state. This was started before the war, which delayed its completion. Despite the delay, the research and the final study proved a valuable textbook for all involved in planning Soviet cities.

Within the study, a series of chapters were devoted to town planning in Britain, and the development of London was treated at considerable length. Although reference is made to London as a “nightmare of a modern city”, the authors also reserved their special admiration for its numerous and varied parks. These will not only have influenced but have been surpassed by the parks of culture and rest that the Soviets incorporated into the majority of their cities, along with the numerous other parks and open spaces spread through the cities, towns and villages.

For example, when walking through Moscow or Leningrad (now St Petersburg) today, it is noticeable that it is not possible to walk more than a couple of blocks without seeing an area of green space, quite often containing some play equipment for children along with benches for communal gatherings.

Expansion and re-planning of existing cities and towns

A typical example of the reconstruction of an established industrial city is Sverdlovsk, formerly Yekaterinburg (renamed from 1924-91 after the great Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov).

Yekaterinburg arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the centre of the mining industry of the Urals under the tsar. Typical of a Ural town, the old layout consisted of a mass of wooden huts where the workers lived. Then in the town centre there would be a few imposing buildings where the local industrial enterprises had their offices. And in the suburbs, usually standing on higher ground, were the villas of the administrative staffs, with trim gardens and shady trees.

By 1932, at the end of the first five-year plan, construction of new large industrial enterprises and, first of all, a huge heavy engineering plant (Uralmash) began in Sverdlovsk. With this, re-planning of the town was essential, and a masterplan was drawn up. This took into account the impact of these new powerful city-forming factors, allocating areas for the expansion of the city on the basis of preliminary considerations and analysis.

In 1936, S Dombrovsky headed work on the master plan, which, while maintaining the existing structure, focused on the development of city that would connect the old part with new industrial areas. The city’s regular plan was defined by two highways: Lenin Avenue, stretching for 4km from west to east, and Lunacharsky Prospect which passed from south to north towards one of the new industrial zones. These two lines, like central axes of orientation, clearly fixed the structure of the city.

In reconstructing Sverdlovsk, new streets and squares were designed, providing areas for housing along with amenities, cultural buildings and other public buildings. At the same time, all the roadways and sidewalks were paved, an up-to-date water and sewer system was installed, and bus and trolley-bus services came into operation.

As Pavel Zlobin, the chief architect of the Urals region in 1946, put it: “In re-planning our towns we look upon each as a single architectural whole, consisting of residential sections, squares, river embankments, green belt, and so on. The natural beauty of the Urals landscape is brought into the town by planning the building so that broad views open out.

“The architect’s purpose is to create the maximum amenities for the population. Nor is he handicapped in his work by dependence on individual landowners, because all the land and most of the buildings in the town are state property.”

Sverdlovsk’s population rose from fewer than 50,000 before the revolution to 140,000 (the size of Newport or Blackpool) by 1926, more than doubling again by 1939 to 423,000 (the size of Cardiff or Leicester). Today it has a population of 1.3 million (the size of Birmingham).

The need for new towns

As existing towns were increasing in population and requiring re-planning, there was also an appreciation by the state that, hand in hand with the drive to develop heavy industry, was the need to establish new towns. The building of new towns in remote districts was of tremendous importance for the rapid economic and cultural development of the country, bringing industry nearer to the sources of raw materials and to areas of consumption.

A host of new cities came into existence. In fact, between 1926 and 1963 over 800 new towns were built across the USSR. They were partly built on the sites of existing small settlements, but approximately one third of them were entirely new towns founded on vacant sites. The building of new towns was particularly intensive in the eastern regions in the union republics of Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kirghiz, Tajik, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – where over two-thirds of the towns were new.

This challenge was one that was taken on with the typical high level of research development and enthusiasm. As a Russian correspondent to the Soviet Times wrote:

“Our housing authorities and architects are used to thinking big. They are used to kaleidoscopic population shifts, to the character of Soviet man, who storms desert and jungle and arctic waste, and from a wilderness of sand or swamp or eternal frost announces: ‘Here I will work. Build me a city.’”

The master plans of these new towns were based on progressive town-planning principles, on clear functional zoning of town territories, on the organisation of convenient connections between residence and work, on the uniform distribution of welfare facilities, and on the principles of creating favourable conditions of work, life and rest for all the inhabitants of the town. Such factors as landscape features, sizes of towns and their national economic importance were taken into account as well.

Typical of these new towns were Magnitogorsk and Karaganda. In 1926, Magnitogorsk was a small settlement surrounded by grasslands where nomads pastured their flocks at the foot of the Magnitanaja mountain in the southern Urals, while Karanganda, not even on the map as a settlement, was a sweltering wasteland in Kazakhstan.

By 1946, Magnitogorsk had a population of 146,000 people. It has now risen to 417,775 (2015); and Karaganda, from nothing in 1926, the population rose to 166,000 by 1946 and now stands at 459,778 (2010).

In planning these new towns, not only were housing, cultural facilities, hospitals and educational facilities incorporated, but the Soviets also took providing green infrastructure and spaces seriously. As LB Lunts, a Russian correspondent, pointed out:

“No site is too grim or arid for our gardeners to tackle. Saline soils are washed clean, the earth is transformed by skilled fertilisation, rocky outcrops are blasted away, and Michurin’s [a notable Russian horticulturalist and geneticist] school of gardeners will undertake to make a flowering orchard in the most improbable place.”

Indeed, the rocky Magnitogorstk, the Urals’ iron and steel colossus, was clothed in verdure; and Karaganda, the centre of the great Kazakh coalfield, managed to turn itself into a creditable version of a ‘garden city’, in spite of its excessively salty soil and great shortage of water.

Another new town was that of Zaporizhia, in Ukraine, which was founded in 1928, at the same time as the building of the hydroelectric power plant on the Dnieper. The first stage of the development was the construction of large blocks of multistorey flats, completely equipped with all kinds of facilities; the outlying districts were built up with cottage-type houses. These were built first by the state building organisation and subsequently by the industrial enterprises.

As Zaporozhje lies in a steppe deprived of any natural plantations, much attention was paid to planting. The plan incorporated many parks and gardens, and its streets and residential quarters, as well as sites of schools and children’s institutions, were lavishly planted. Khortitza island was turned into a forest-park with rest homes, as well as pioneer camps for children of the workers and employees in the town enterprises.

Some examples of the 800 new towns that were built across the Soviet Union are Komsomolsk on the Amur in the far east, supporting large shipyards, and Novokuznetsk in the Kuznetsk coal basin in western Siberia.

In Estonia, Kohtla-Yarve developed around the oil shale production. Rustavi, a large industrial centre of major significance, was built in the Georgian Soviet republic on the basis of the Trans-Caucasian metallurgical works. In Azerbaijan, on the basis of metallurgical and chemical production, the town of Sumgait appeared.

New houses for working people

There is a tendency to think that all Soviet housing was in massive highrise blocks. Indeed, opponents of the Soviet Union, and of socialism, would have you think that not only was the standard for massive blocks of highrise flats but that they were all the same type of monolithic block.

In fact, that was not the case. Up to the mid-1950s the main type of housing construction was low or mid-rise. One reason for this was available materials: you do not need steel or concrete to build low-rise. Another is that the scale of these buildings is appropriate where land is available. Since land had been nationalised, its supply was no longer subject to the limitations that had previously been suffered when ownership and, importantly, financial returns, governed development.

In the majority of towns, most houses were no more than two storeys. In larger cities, buildings within the central area would extend up to three, four or five storeys. For example in the Urals, it was Sverdlovsk, Nizhni-Tagil and Kemensk-Uralsk where buildings of up to five storeys were erected in the main streets, while the surrounding towns were all low-rise. In the larger cities of Leningrad and Moscow these scales would rise to over 10 storeys.

In terms of who built the houses, approximately two-thirds of the dwellings in the USSR were built by state building organisations, while the remainder were built by the collective farms, housing cooperatives and individuals. Many of the state industrial enterprises, such as iron and steel works, built big housing projects of low-rise, bungalow and two-storey houses and cottages. Once built, these would be transferred to individual workers for their occupation.

Mr Vozyakov, manager of the Central Communal Bank of the USSR, commented in 1946: “Some of the nicest cottages I have seen have been built at Nizhny Tagil, in the Urals, by the Visokogorsk Iron Ore Trust for its workers. Each one has a personality of its own, some slightly different treatment of the facade which sets it apart from the rest. The owners are particularly proud of their gardens.” (Quoted in We encourage private house building, Soviet Times, 1946)

While the state building organisations built most of the new housing that was much needed, there was also some encouragement to individuals to build their own houses with the assistance of state loans and in accordance with their local village or town plan. The Academy of Architecture set up the Institute of Mass Construction with the object of producing designs for houses suitable for erection by people building their own homes.

During 1943-4 a set of general principles of design for rural housing was prepared, taking into account the conditions that were expected to prevail after the war. It was agreed that the construction of separate bungalows and two-storey houses would best meet the demands of the time, and plans were drawn up accordingly.

These plans took into account the probable shortage of building materials and of skilled labour. In view of these two factors, allowances had to be made for maximum use of all sorts of local building materials, and architects were asked to bear in mind, when preparing their designs, that most of the houses put up in the country areas would probably not be built by skilled building workers, but by untrained local labour without mechanical aid.

Not only did it research, create and publish designs to assist in local rural house building, the institute also gave exhaustive directions for construction so that amateur builders would have full instructions to work from.

The size of rooms was planned in consultation with the institute responsible for designing household utility furniture. Every cottage had storage and outbuildings. It was suggested and expected that gardens would be used for both fruit and vegetables, with the plans also providing some useful advice on garden layouts.

In style these cottages had a modest neatness, but the architects refrained from laying down any rules for decoration. Their main aim was to provide guidance for the most economical and convenient use of space. It was recognised that with so much varied local material and with so great a variety of climatic conditions to be taken into account, there could be no real standardisation. Local authorities and builders were expected to use their judgement and draw on the great human capacity for improvisation.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the extensive developments of housing and community facilities were still typically low-rise, and showed serious attempts to reinterpret local building traditions in form as well as decoration, in many cases most successfully. Unfortunately, much of this work has been swept away in later redevelopments and is little known, though it might now have offered some useful models.

For example, the low-rise apartments in and around Moscow took the form of courtyards similar to old urban estates, a layout which was characteristic of the old city. By contrast, in Kiev, the layout was characterised by a more street-oriented architecture, with terraced housing and the use of florid Ukrainian sculpted decoration. In Central Asia, meanwhile, the equivalent housing was constructed with thick solid walls of high thermal mass with small apertures and deeply recessed shaded balconies, often reflecting local arch forms in their profile.

An example of a residential development in Liublino, Moscow, shows a layout based around central courtyards, with ornate planted gardens as well as garden space in front of the surrounding buildings. The rendered houses form a block around the garden. The block is predominantly two-storey, with elements of three-storey that add focal points to the building. The use of gables, corbel detailing, arched accesses through the block and generous proportions to the windows, creates a development that is extremely pleasing.

Images of new houses built in Stalinabad (the capital city of Tajikistan, now named Dushanbe) show a linear plan with terraced two-storey buildings. The facades in white render are detailed with first floor balconies creating a rhythm along the street. The stone balustrades on the balconies and the corbelled parapet roofs give the buildings a classical style, while the sculpted heads to the windows follow the traditional forms of the region. It is worth noting that the front gardens provided on some of the streets are generous and show an abundance of plants and trees.

The scale rose in the early 1950s to five storeys and above. By then, particularly in Moscow, very high standards of spatial provision, construction and finish were creating a suitably high-quality environment for the main public thoroughfares. It is in the bigger cities like Moscow and Leningrad that the majority of the high-rise development took place.

Not only were the external facades considered but the internal detailing and provision was deemed important and given suitable attention. Examples of some of the indoor communal spaces include: staircases with generous proportions and spaces to allow for gatherings of residents; crafted balustrades and grand wooden carved doors specific to each block; iron gates embellished with arches and details giving character to entrances; and glazed partition doors to allow light through the building. Inside the apartments there were examples of built-in wooden wardrobes with compartments and drawers.

While there was a level of standardisation and application of common layouts to housing across the Soviet Union, there was encouragement and attention paid to local vernacular architecture and its incorporation with classical forms. Arkady Mordvinov, a Soviet architect who became the president of the Academy of Architecture in 1950, pointed out:

“National forms offer colourful variety. The humanism expressed in classical forms serves to unify the architecture of all the national republics, while yet allowing them to preserve traits peculiarly their own.” (Quoted in Reconstruction of towns and art problems confronting Soviet architecture, VOKS bulletin, 1944)

Architectural style

From the mid-1920s and through the 1930s there had been an ideological battle over design. The avant-garde movement, which was developing across the western world, had also taken root in Russia. Many liberal critics see the first decade of the revolution as an ‘exciting moment’ for the expression of the ‘new’ stylised movement in the arts, with architecture being no exception.

Constructivism was the expression of this ‘new’ thinking in architecture, seeing simplicity in design as fundamental. Its proponents opposed the idea of celebrating traditional forms of architecture and design, instead placing emphasis on new technologies and the machine, considering form to follow function with a focus on clean lines, minimal detailing and geometric form.

After the revolution, the constructivists built many individual commissions across the Soviet Union, which gained support amongst the academics for their formalist approach to architecture and design. However, there was increasing opposition amongst the masses to the geometric ‘boxes’ that were being built in parallel lines across the steppe or in Moscow suburbs. Popular discontent with bad modern buildings bred the desire for something that spoke the language of mass aspiration, and with it the need to address the role of architecture.

In 1926, Anatoly Lunarcharsky delivered a speech to the State Academy of Artistic Sciences (GAKhN) that reinforced a clear approach to design in opposition to that of the constructivists: namely, the application of socialist realism in architecture – socialist realism being a method of artistic reflection (otrazheniya) and creative work, and not a specift style; a method of artistic expression that uses examples of the world as it is and seeks within that to raise the understanding of the masses and point to what is possible; to help in the creation of the new man.

In his speech, Comrade Lunarcharsky pointed out: “It is being said that this is a new stage in human history; that the proletariat is entering into the stage of urbanisation; that the machine is poetic; that the factory is the most powerful thing that can be seen on earth; that any form of literary tale is a mere mirage compared to the poetic situation in which science brings about a new factory.

“I do not in any way deny that the proletariat may find original and attractive colouration for its life in poems of productivity … But it has to be said that … only futurism and the artists of the LEF (a literary group), that seedbed of constructivism, who are the avant-garde of a leftist Euro-American urban culture, can become wholly immersed in this element …

“We [Bolsheviks] have not entered the world in order to finally make the machine the mistress of our lives, as advocates of time-and-motion study like Gastev are advocating through their sociopolitical literature. We came in order to liberate the individual from under the power of the machine … Let the rhythm of the machine certainly become an important element in our culture … but the machine cannot be the centre of our art.

“There exists with us in Russia a vast Euro-American conception of the culture of individual creative work, of that high art which was created by the geniuses, the great talents of Euro-American culture. Certainly there is a very great deal that can be absorbed from the products of this individual art. But as a whole it is alien to us …

“Much more nourishing an environment for proletarian art is that mass of vernacular, peasant art, that art which developed in the primal period of our ancestors …

“It is precisely from here that we should draw models, from this art evolved over the course of centuries, which devised a ‘style’ that is almost irreproachable in the inner rigour and order of its crystallisation of form.

“Despite the fact that it developed while civilisation itself was still beginning to emerge, it is precisely this vast body of creativity which can now provide that nutritious environment for proletarian artistic labour – because of its multi-valued character, and because of the collective nature of the basic principles underlying its products.”

This speech demolished the constructivists’ claim that their machine-led approach to design was somehow related to socialist development, making the distinction between the role of the machine in building society and its domination over man.

Lunarcharsky further outlined how proletarian art, including architecture, should not be alien to the masses but come from the art that has developed for centuries. As Vladimir Lenin rather bluntly pointed out in relation to the constructivist approach to design when speaking to Clara Zetkin:

“I have the courage to show myself a barbarian. I cannot value the works of expressionism, futurism, cubism or other such ‘isms’ as the highest manifestations of artistic genius. I do not understand them …

“Art belongs to the people. It must grow deep roots in the very midst of the broad mass of workers. It must be understood and loved by them. It must unite the feelings, thoughts, and will of the masses and inspire them.” (Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, 1924)

Lenin further made the point, when speaking at the third congress of the Komsomol (Young Communist League), that culture is not ‘invented’ by people who deem themselves specialists. The constructivists saw themselves as the new thinkers applying their art to the socialist requirements of the day, very much falling into the category of just such self-annointed ‘specialism’ in proletarian culture.

Lenin, on the other hand, stressed just where it is that proletarian culture comes from: “Proletarian culture is not something dreamed up out of nowhere; nor is it the invention of people who call themselves specialists in proletarian culture. That is all complete nonsense. Proletarian culture must emerge from the steady development of those reserves of experience which humanity has built up under the yoke of capitalism.” (Speech to the third all-Russian congress of the Komsomol, 1920)

Having gone through this ideological battle against the avant-garde constructivists, the state developed flourishing building organisations and institutes that ably tackled the housing problem while maintaining the long-term implications of building structures that not only housed people but also created the environment in which the peoples of the Soviet Union were living their daily lives.

Then in 1954, just a year after the death of Stalin, the new revisionist leader of the Soviet state and the communist party Nikita Khrushchev made a speech to the all-union conference on building problems denouncing “Stalinist architecture” and “all ornamentation on buildings”.

Khrushchev had been a senior party member in Moscow during the construction of the city’s metro and the realisation of the 1935 plan for Moscow. He had involvement in the building institutes and was aware of all the discussions and debates that had taken place previously. And yet it was not until after Stalin died that he spoke on the matter of design and announced that “architecture is not art”, asserting that “it is technology and should be treated as such”.

At the conference, he made an uncompromising attack on the Academy of Architecture, the president of the academy, Arkady Mordvinov, and the profession as a whole, using the need for more housing as his justification. He accused them of “skating around the problem of building economies”, claiming they were not “interested in costs per square metre of living space”, but were “indulging themselves with unnecessary ornamentation of facades, and permitting all manner of excesses”.

He went on: “Architects are more concerned with beautiful silhouettes than with living quarters … Modern apartment houses must not be transformed into a replica of a church or museum … Some leading architects refuse to adapt their work to the new materials by referring to the need of combating constructivism … Such architects should probably be called constructivists in reverse, since they themselves are lapsing into aesthetic admiration of form divorced from content.”

He outlined that the direction of the future must be “standard designs for housing, schools, hospitals, kindergartens and so on”, with “effective use of new materials … and of pre-fabricated reinforced concrete components, large-panel and large-block construction systems”.

All this stood in sharp contrast to the previous Soviet tradition in architecture.

“The greatest traditions of the past will live on not as historical reminiscences but in an organic new creation on a national soil – national in its fullest reference to the people …

“The creative task of the modern architect is to give architectural expression to the peoples, the localities, the cities in individuality, and not hide this individuality behind a simplified screen of reinforced concrete, glass and metal.”

These hopeful words of leading architect D Arkin, in 1947, were not to be fulfilled by the state building organisations from the mid-1950s onwards.

In November 1955, the second congress of Soviet architects was convened, following a decree on 10 November ‘On removing decorative excesses in architectural design and in building’. From there on across the Soviet Union mid-rise and high-rise blocks were built to standard plans, with standard elevations based on a set of standard prefabricated concrete elements. The Khrushchyovka, a standardised five-storey housing block, was born and spread like wildfire.

This prefabrication and standardisation was not limited to housing: all cultural and service buildings were also required to be built based on standardised elements.

No longer were the steppes of the Urals and the suburbs of Moscow to be distinct and evoke traditions and characters that celebrated the peoples of the Soviet Union. The landscape of the edges of towns was the same whether you went to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Sverdlovsk, Tashkent, Nizhny Tagil, Cherepovets or any other city, where entire neighbourhoods still today consist of these large-panel prefabricated buildings.

The Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s famous line “The streets are our brushes, the squares our palates” was no longer applicable to the housing development that took place under Khrushchev. The art in architecture was removed, and with it the character and aspirations of the people.

Posted in Literature, RussiaComments Off on Housing and architecture in the Soviet Union

Marxism in the 21st century: is it still relevant?

‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ — Karl Marx

Ranjeet Brar

In this short video, leading communist Dr Ranjeet Brar speaks to a meeting held in 2018 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth.

It’s generally agreed, he says, that Karl Marx had a profound effect on the thinking of humanity. Even a BBC poll at the turn of the century pronounced Marx to be the greatest thinker of the millennium.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, workers were drowned in a deluge of capitalist triumphalism. In Germany, we watched Chancellor Cole hold up a copy of VI Lenin‘s Imperialism and Marx’s Capital before dramatically throwing them away to symbolise their alleged ‘failure’.

An obscure US-sponsored ideologue, Francis Fukuyama, was everywhere promoted, along with his convenient declaration that this was the “end of history” – that the demise of the USSR proved that there’s no higher form of society or state than capitalism, that system which embodies the exploitation of man by man and of nation by nation.

But when the economic crisis hit in 2008; when banks were collapsing and stock markets were plunging; when the housing market was slumping and working people were being laid off, too impoverished to buy the glut of unsaleable goods rotting in the factories, the ruling class’s ideologues changed their tune, and it became fashionable once again to briefly and glibly ‘revisit’ Marxism.

Marx, it was admitted, had been onto something, had understood something important about the way the market and the capitalist system operate to create such crises.

The BBC very cleverly took a lead in that discussion, putting on a series of programmes in which it claimed to evaluate Marx’s work before asserting that he had never presented any alternative to the present system.

But one only has to open the pages of the Communist Manifesto to see what an absolute lie this is.

Marx not only described the history of class struggle and the specific problems of capitalism, he also demonstrated very clearly that the capitalist system contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The workingmen (the propertyless ‘proletarians’) are the gravediggers of capitalism and will be the builders of a new society that will end exploitation and take hold of the means of production (factories, land, etc) so that production can be reorganised to meet the needs of the people and provide a decent life for all, he said, and showed exactly how he had arrived at this conclusion.

Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin found it necessary to revisit Marx’s teachings on the state at the time of the first world war, because across Europe social democrats (in Britain, the Labour party) had deserted the working class and sided with their imperialist rulers over the question of the war, voting for war credits and supporting the sending of millions of workers into battle to slaughter one another to determine which gang of exploiters should control how much of the world’s wealth.

Lenin noted how often revolutionary thinkers are derided, abused, reviled and discredited during their lifetimes, when they’re actively involved in revolutionary struggle and their ideas are a threat to the established order, but are reinvented in an officially-approved form after their deaths – with the revolutionary essence of their teaching cut out – so that the remaining shadow can be presented to workers as a consolation prize to ease their suffering under the status quo.

Even in Lenin’s day, it was perfectly acceptable for all types of people to declare themselves ‘Marxist’ so long as they ignored the revolutionary teaching of Marx on the state; on the need for building a new type of state capable of representing the interests of the working class.

But the need for a workers’ state was the fundamental essence of the revolutionary teachings of Karl Marx, and it is this essence that the capitalists have worked hard to obscure and to keep from the workers.

Posted in Literature, PoliticsComments Off on Marxism in the 21st century: is it still relevant?

Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The capitalist economic system has always had a big problem with politics in societies with universal suffrage. Anticipating that, most capitalists opposed and long resisted extending suffrage beyond the rich who possessed capital. Only mass pressures from below forced repeated extensions of voting rights until universal suffrage was achieved—at least legally. To this day, capitalists develop and apply all sorts of legal and illegal mechanisms to limit and constrain suffrage. Among those committed to conserving capitalism, fear of universal suffrage runs deep. Trump and his Republicans exemplify and act on that fear as the 2020 election looms.

The problem arises from capitalism’s basic nature. The capitalists who own and operate business enterprises—employers as a group—comprise a small social minority. In contrast, employees and their families are the social majority. The employer minority clearly dominates the micro-economy inside each enterprise. In capitalist corporations, the major shareholders and the board of directors they select make all the key decisions including distribution of the enterprise’s net revenues.

Their decisions allocate large portions of those net revenues to themselves as shareholders’ dividends and top managers’ executive pay packages. Their incomes and wealth thus accumulate faster than the social averages. In privately held capitalist enterprises their owners and top managers behave similarly and enjoy a similar set of privileges. Unequally distributed income and wealth in modern societies flow chiefly from the internal organization of capitalist enterprises. The owners and their top managers then use their disproportionate wealth to shape and control the macro-economy and the politics interwoven with it.

However, universal suffrage makes it possible for employees to undo capitalism’s underlying economic inequalities by political means when, for example, majorities win elections. Employees can elect politicians whose legislative, executive, and judicial decisions effectively reverse capitalism’s economic results. Tax, minimum wage, and government spending laws can redistribute income and wealth in many different ways. If redistribution is not how majorities choose to end unacceptable levels of inequality, they can take other steps. Majorities might, for example, vote to transition enterprises’ internal organizations from capitalist hierarchies to democratic cooperatives. Enterprises’ net revenues would then be distributed not by the minorities atop capitalist hierarchies but instead by democratic decisions of all employees, each with one vote. The multiple levels of inequality typical of capitalism would disappear.

Capitalism’s ongoing political problem has been how best to prevent employees from forming just such political majorities. During its recurring times of special difficulty (periodic crashes, wars, conflicts between monopolized and competitive industries, pandemics), capitalism’s political problem intensifies and broadens. It becomes how best to prevent employees’ political majorities from ending capitalism altogether and moving society to an alternative economic system.

To solve capitalism’s political problem, capitalists as a small social minority must craft alliances with other social groups. Those alliances must be strong enough to defuse, deter, or destroy any and all emerging employee majorities that might threaten capitalists’ interests or their systems’ survival. The smaller or weaker the capitalist minorities are, the more the key alliance they form and rely upon is with the military. In many parts of the world, capitalism is secured by a military dictatorship that targets and destroys emerging movements for anti-capitalist change among employees or among non-capitalist sectors. Even where capitalists are a relatively large, well-established minority, if their social dominance is threatened, say by a large anti-capitalist movement from below, alliance with a military dictatorship may be a last resort survival mechanism. When such alliances culminate in mergers of capitalists and the state apparatus, fascism has arrived.

During capitalism’s non-extreme moments, when not threatened by imminent social explosions, its basic political problem remains. Capitalists must block employee majorities from undoing the workings and results of the capitalist economic system and especially its characteristic distributions of income, wealth, power, and culture. To that end capitalists seek portions of the employee class to ally with, to disconnect from other, fellow employees. They usually work with and use political parties to form and sustain such alliances.

In the words of the great Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, the capitalists use their allied political party to form a “political bloc” with portions of the employee class and possible others outside the capitalist economy. That bloc must be strong enough to thwart the anti-capitalist goals of movements among the employee class. Ideally, for capitalists, their bloc should rule the society—be the hegemonic power—by controlling mass media, winning elections, producing parliamentary majorities, and disseminating an ideology in schools and beyond that justifies capitalism. Capitalist hegemony would then keep anti-capitalist impulses disorganized or unable to build a social movement into a counter-hegemonic bloc strong enough to challenge capitalism’s hegemony.

Trump illustrates the current conditions for capitalist hegemony. First and foremost, his government lavishly funds and celebrates the military. Secondly, he delivered to corporations and the rich a huge 2017 tax cut despite their having enjoyed several prior decades of wealth redistribution upward to them. Thirdly, he keeps deregulating capitalist enterprises and markets. To sustain his government’s largesse to its capitalist patrons, he notoriously cultivates traditional alliances with portions of the employee class. The Republican Party that Trump inherited and took over had let those lapse. They had weakened and led to dangerous political losses. They had to be rebuilt and strengthened or else the Republican Party could no longer be the means for capitalists to craft and organizationally sustain a hegemonic bloc. The GOP would then likely fade away, leaving the Democratic Party for the capitalists to ally with and use for such a hegemonic bloc.

Capitalists have switched hegemonic allies and agents between the two major parties repeatedly in U.S. history. Just as the Republican Party let its alliances with sections of the employee class lapse, opening the space for Trump, so too did the Democratic Party with its traditional allies. That opened space for Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the progressives. To revive and rebuild the Republican Party as a hegemonic ally with U.S. capitalists, Trump had to give a good bit more to Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists, anti-immigration forces, chauvinists (and anti-foreigners), law-and-order enthusiasts, and gun lovers than the old GOP establishment did. That is why and how he defeated that establishment. For historical reasons, Clinton, Obama, and the old Democratic Party establishment survived yet again despite giving little to their employee class allies (workers, unions, African Americans, Latinx, women, students, academics, and the unemployed). They kept control of the party, blocked Sanders and the growing progressive challenge, and won the popular vote in 2016. They lost the election.

Capitalists prefer to use the Republicans as their hegemonic partner because the Republicans more reliably and regularly deliver what capitalists want than the Democrats do. But if and when the Republican bloc of alliances weakens or otherwise functions inadequately as a hegemonic partner, U.S. capitalists will shift to the Democrats. They will accept less favorable policies, at least for a while, if they gain a solid hegemonic partner in return. Were Trump’s alliances with portions of the employee class to weaken or dissolve, U.S. capitalists will go with the Biden-Clinton-Obama Democrats instead. If needed, they would also go with the progressives, as they did in the 1930s with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Trump repeatedly aims to strengthen his alliances with the more than a third of American employees who seem to approve of his regime, no matter the offense given to others. He counts on that being enough for most capitalists to stay with the Republicans. After all, most capitalists prefer Republicans; his regime strongly supported the military and corporate profiteering. Only Trump’s and the Republicans’ colossal failures to prepare for or contain both the pandemic and the capitalism-caused economic crash could shift voter sentiment to elect Democrats. So Trump and the Republicans concentrate on denying those failures and distracting public attention from them. The Democratic Party establishment aims to persuade capitalists that a Biden regime will better manage the pandemic and crash, deliver a larger mass base to support capitalism, and only marginally reform its inequalities.

For the progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party, a major choice looms. Many have felt it. On the one hand, progressives may access power as the most attractive hegemonic allies for capitalists. By sharpening rather than soft-pedaling social criticisms, progressives may give capitalist employers stronger hegemonic alliances with employees than the traditional Democratic establishment can or dares to offer. That is roughly what Trump did in displacing the traditional establishment of the Republican Party. On the other hand, progressives will be tempted by their own growth to break from the two-party alternation that keeps capitalism hegemonic. Instead, progressives could then open up U.S. politics so that the public would have greater free choice: an anti-capitalist and pro-socialist party competing against the two traditional pro-capitalist parties.

Capitalism’s political problem arose from its intrinsically undemocratic juxtaposition of an employer minority and an employee majority. The contradictions of that structure clashed with universal suffrage. Endless political maneuvers around hegemonic blocs with alternative sections of the employees allowed capitalism to survive. However, eventually those contradictions would exceed the capacity of hegemonic maneuvers to contain and control them. A pandemic combined with a major economic crash may provoke and enable progressives to make the break, change U.S. politics, and realize the long-overdue social changes.

Posted in Literature, PoliticsComments Off on Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy

Book: The Rise and Fall of Project Corbyn

What should British workers conclude from this four-year experiment in ‘reclaiming the Labour party for socialism’?

Proletarian writers

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Jeremy Corbyn was only included on the Labour party’s 2015 leadership election ballot to liven up the contest a little, but his insistence on championing the needs of workers and the marginalised at a time of deepening austerity, widening inequality and war sent a message of hope to the disenfranchised. A burst of socialist enthusiasm attracted a mass influx of members into his declining party and swept him to a thumping victory on a wave of ‘Corbynmania’.

Initially struck dumb at this unexpected turn of events, the Labour party grandees, along with the wider British political establishment, formulated a plan to contain and limit the influence of Corbyn and his supporters, and to neutralise his obvious and growing mass appeal.

Launching an assault on every front, they hounded him on question after question, creating one fake controversy after another. And it gradually became clear to all that no amount of pacifying, compromising or apologising was going to be enough for those whose interests were threatened by the prospect of a Corbyn-led government, no matter how reasonable and respectable its aims.

Those who flocked to his banner took Corbyn’s evaluation of the Labour party at face value. They believed that Labour was socialist, that it would champion the interests of the working class against the wealthy; that it could and would take on the British political establishment; and that a better life could be won by simple electoral means.

This pamphlet contains a selection of articles charting the rise and fall of the Corbyn project as it happened. What should British workers conclude from the four-year experiment in ‘reclaiming the Labour party for socialism’? Why and how did it fail?

And what should we do now if we want to succeed in winning a decent and dignified life for all, free from poverty, inequality and war?

Posted in Literature, Politics, UKComments Off on Book: The Rise and Fall of Project Corbyn

An Attack on Edward Said’s Legacy


Photograph Source: Briantrejo – CC BY-SA 3.0

I traveled to Israel and the Occupied Territories in the early 2000s with the progressive group Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. We made an effort to gain insight into most of the players in the conflict, and so a series of interviews was arranged with members of the Israeli right wing. I remember that one of them was Caroline Glick, an ardent American-Israeli Zionist. She lectured us on the positive personal relationships allegedly prevalent between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

It was an interesting and somewhat embarrassing experience. Glick and I are both American and both Jewish. Growing up, I had this understanding that American plus Jewish always meant being anti-racist. To be so was, in my mind, the prime lesson of modern Jewish history. What being anti-racist meant to Glick was unclear. She spent the better part of an hour giving us a defense of Israeli-Jewish treatment of Palestinians based on the classic “some of my best friends are Black” (read Palestinian) defense. In the words of the New York Times journalist John Eligon, this line of argument “has so often been relied on by those facing accusations of racism that it has become shorthand for weak denials of bigotry—a punch line about the absence of thoughtfulness and rigor in our conversations about racism.” And so it was with Glick, who explained that she, and many other Israeli Jews, had Palestinians who do small jobs for them and are treated well, and that this proves a lack of cultural and societal racism. It was such a vacuous argument that I remember feeling embarrassed for her.

Things haven’t gotten much better when it comes to Ms. Glick’s worldview. She is now a senior columnist at Israel Hayom (Israel Today, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper owned by the family of Sheldon Adelson) and contributor to such questionable U.S. outlets as Breitbart NewsShealso directs the Israeli Security Project at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. There can be little doubt that she continues to see the world through the distorting lens of a particularly hardline variant of Zionism.

Glick’s Attack on Edward Said’s Legacy 

Recently, Caroline Glick launched an attack on the legacy of the late American-Palestinian scholar and teacher Edward Said. Entitled “Edward Said, Prophet of Political Violence in America,” it was recently (7 July 2020) published in the U.S. by Newsweek—a news magazine with an increasingly pro-Zionist editorial stand. As it turns out, one cannot find a better example of how ideology can distort one’s outlook to the point of absurdity. Below is an analysis of Glick’s piece in a point-by-point fashion. Ultimately, the ideological basis for her argument will become clear.

1. Glick begins by resurrecting a twenty-year-old event. “On July 3, 2000, an incident occurred along the Lebanese border with Israel that, at the time, seemed both bizarre and … unimportant. That day, Columbia University professor Edward Said was photographed on the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese side of the border with Israel throwing a rock at an Israel Defense Forces watchtower 30 feet away.” She goes on to describe this act as “Said’s rock attack on Israel” and the “soldiers protecting their border.”

We need some context to put all of this in perspective: Israel is an expansionist state, and the original Zionist aim (as presented to the Paris Peace Conference following World War I) was to incorporate parts of southern Lebanon into what is now Israel. Southern Lebanon also briefly became a staging area for Palestinian retaliatory attacks into Israel. Thus, Israel invaded Lebanon multiple times only to be forced to withdraw in the face of resistance led by Hezbollah, a strong Lebanese Shiite militia in control of much of southern Lebanon.

Said relates that during his 2000 visit to the Lebanese border with his family, he threw a pebble (not a “rock”) at a deserted Israeli watchtower (no Israeli soldiers were “defending their border”).  Said saw this as a symbolic act of defiance against Israeli occupation. Over the years stone throwing by Palestinian youth had become just such a symbolic act. And, it was from their example that Said might have taken his cue.

2. However, Glick wants to draw highly questionable consequences from Said’s act. She tells us that “with the hindsight of 20 years, it was a seminal moment and a harbinger for the mob violence now taking place in many parts of America.” By the way, the “mob violence” in America she is referring to is the mass protests against police brutality that followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on 25 May 2020.

3. Now that sounds a bit odd. How does Glick manage this segue from Edward Said’s symbolic stone toss in the year 2000 to nationwide inner-city rebellions against police brutality in 2020 America? Here is the contorted sequence she offers:

a. Said was a terrorist because he was an influential member of the alleged “terrorist organization,” the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). “Terrorist organization” is a standard Zionist descriptor of most Palestinian organizations. Actually, the PLO is the legally recognized representative of the Palestinian people and as such has carried on both a armed and a diplomatic struggle to liberate Palestine from Israeli Occupation. In 1993, the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist. This made little difference to the Zionist right wing who, like Glick, continued to use the terrorist tag for propaganda purposes. It is to be noted that all liberation movements are considered to be “terrorist” by those they fight against. And, indeed both sides in such a struggle usually act in this fashion on occasion. Certainly, Israel is no innocent in this regard.

b. For Glick, Said’s alleged terrorist connection transforms his “rock attack” into a terrorist act. This is simply an ad hominem assertion on Glick’s part. There is no evidence that Said ever engaged in any act, including the tossing of stones, that can sanely be characterized as terrorism.

c. Glick tells us that, at the same time Said was ‘committing a terrorist attack’ on Israel, he was also “the superstar of far-Left intellectuals.” It is hard to know what she means here by “far-Left.” It is seems to be another ad hominem slander. Said was a scholar of Comparative Literature and, when not in the classroom, he advocated for the political and human rights of oppressed Palestinians—how “far-Left” is that?

d. Nonetheless, Glick goes on to assert that as a “far-Left” academic, Said waged a “nihilistic” and “anti-intellectual” offensive against Western thought. He did so in a well-known work entitled Orientalism published in 1978.

What does Orientalism actually say? Using mostly 19th century literary and artistic examples, the book documents the prevailing Western perception of the Near East and North Africa, which stands in for the Orient. This perception reflects a basically bipolar worldview—one which, according to Said, reserved for the West a superior image of science and reason, prosperity and high culture, and for the Orient an inferior somewhat mysterious and effeminate image of the “other” fated for domination by the West. Over time this view became pervasive in the West and influenced not only literary and artistic views of the Orient, but also impacted political, historical, anthropological and other non-fictional interpretations. Having helped create a superior sense of self, this orientalist perception served as a rationale for Western world dominance. It should be said that whether one agrees with every one of Said’s details or not, there is no doubt his well researched and documented work has made most scholars more aware of their biases.

e. Glick refuses to see Orientalism asjust an influential academic work. Instead, in what appears to be a pattern of illogical jumps, she claims that “in Orientalism, Said characterized all Western—and particularly American—scholarship on the Arab and Islamic worlds as one big conspiracy theory” designed to justify empire. This then is the heart of Said’s alleged “nihilistic” repudiation of Western scholarship. She particularly points to Said’s claim that “From the Enlightenment period through the present every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric.” While this is a far-reaching generalization, it basically reflects an equally pervasive, very real Western cultural bias. What Glick describes as a “conspiracy theory” is Said’s scholarly demonstration of how that bias has expressed itself. And, it should be noted that such pervasive biases are not uniquely American nor even Western. Chinese, Japanese, Arab/Muslim, Hindu and Jewish civilizations have their own variants of such biases. Yet, it is Said’s effort to expose and ameliorate the orientalism of the West that seems to madden Caroline Glick.

f. For Glick, Said’s suggestion that both past as well as many present scholars have culturally biased points of view of the Orient becomes an accusation that any “great scholar” with a classical Western worldview “is worse than worthless. If he is a white American, he is an agent of evil.” Glick is now building a real head of steam and her account becomes more and more grotesque. She now claims that Said’s work is “intellectual nihilism.” How so? Because it “champions narrative over evidence.” What Glick is implying here is that Said’s work is an anti-Western screed presented without evidence. This is demonstrably wrong, but nonetheless provides a platform for Glick’s further assertion that Said’s fantastical narrative is told in order to “manipulate students to engage in political violence against the United States.”

What Is This All About?

Caroline Glick makes repeated illogical jumps. As egregious as these are they actually point the way to her larger ideological agenda.

+ Said is a terrorist because he opposes Israel and supports the Palestinians. Participation in the PLO is her proof of this.

+ Because Said is a terrorist, his throwing of a stone at the southern Lebanese border is a terrorist attack against Israel and its defense forces.

+ Somehow, Said’s throwing the stone was also “a harbinger for the mob violence now taking place in many parts of America.” The connector here is Said’s tossing of an intellectual “rock”—his thesis presented in Orientalism.

+ Just as his “rock attack” was terroristic, so Said’s book, Orientalism, is itself an act of terrorism as well as a “nihilistic” project.

+ It is all these nasty things rolled into one because it calls into question established cultural assumptions that had long underpinned colonialism and imperialism, and which also just happens to underpin Israel’s claim to legitimacy.

+ But there is more. Glick tells us, “Said’s championing of the Palestinian war against Israel was part of a far wider post-colonialist crusade he waged against the United States. The purpose of his scholarship was to deny American professors the right to study and understand the world [in an orientalist fashion] by delegitimizing them as nothing but racists and imperialists.”

+ And finally, “Orientalism formed the foundation of a much broader campaign on campuses to delegitimize the United States as a political entity steeped in racism.”


Glick’s attack on Edward Said’s legacy is beset with leaps of illogic. So let me conclude this analysis with my own leap, hopefully a logical one, to an explanation of what may be Glick’s larger agenda. Glick is attempting to turn the ideological clock back to a time before decolonization. Specifically, she wishes to resurrect an overall acceptance of Western colonialism as a benevolent endeavor whereby progress and civilization was spread by a superior culture.

Why would she want to do this? Because if we all believe this proposition, then Israel can be seen as a legitimate and normal state. After all, Israel is the last of the colonial settler states—the imposition of Western culture into the Orient. It rules over millions of Palestinian Arabs as the result of a European invasion made “legal” by a colonial document, the Balfour Declaration, and its acceptance by a pro-colonial League of Nations. Our post-colonial age in which Edward Said is a “superstar intellectual,” is seen as a constant threat to Zionist Israel’s legitimacy.

Edward Said’s legacy provides a strong theoretical foundation for understanding why the Western imperialists thought and acted as they did, and hence helps both Western and non-Western peoples to confront their own modern historical situation. However, Glick cannot see any of this except through the Zionist perspective. Thus, Said’s legacy is just part of an anti-Israeli conspiracy—an attack on those scholars who support the legitimacy of an orientalist point of view and of the Zionist state.

She also suggests that Said’s undoing of historically accepted biases lets loose the “mob violence” seen in the U.S. There is no evidence for this, but it may be Glick’s roundabout way of undermining student support for Palestinian rights on American campuses.

Ultimately, what Glick is interested in is preserving the image of Israel as a Western democratic enclave in an otherwise uncivilized sea of Arab and Islamic barbarians. That fits right into the traditional orientalist belief system and justifies the continuing U.S.-Israeli alliance. Said has successfully called that perspective into question. Hence Glick’s assault on his legacy.

Finally, Glick’s present attack on Said, and her attempt to tie his work into the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder, shows how frightened the defenders of one racist state, Zionist Israel, become when their principle ally, the United States, comes under attack for racist practices. Said as a “superstar” foe of all racism becomes the lighting rod for that fear.

Posted in Palestine Affairs, ZIO-NAZI, LiteratureComments Off on An Attack on Edward Said’s Legacy

Review: American Pimp


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American Pimp is a 1999 documentary directed by the Hughes Brothers, the half-black, half-Armenian twins who also directed Menace II Society and Dead PresidentsAmerican Pimp fallen into obscurity and is now hard to find. But it deserves to be better-known, especially among race-realists. American Pimp is just under 90 minutes. It consists primarily of interviews with black pimps and their prostitutes.

The film opens with clips of white people sharing their views about pimps, which are universally negative: disgusting, immoral, exploiters of women, parasites, gaudy, tasteless, extravagant, etc. It is hard to know if we are supposed to think these are all negative “stereotypes” for which white people should be ashamed. As the movie unfolds, however, we see that these descriptions are all true—and then some.

American Pimp also intercuts clips from so-called Blaxploitation films such as The Mack and Willie Dynamite. Again, it is hard to tell if we are supposed to think that these films are sinister parodies and exaggerations of the truth about pimps. But the documentary goes on to demonstrate that the truth about pimps is far more clownish and sinister than the movie portrayals. Beyond that, the very term “Blaxploitation” strikes me as faux-victimhood whining, since these films generally glamorize and glorify ghetto black behavior for the entertainment of ghetto black consumers.

Judging from the film, the typical African-American pimp is ugly, dark-black, unspeakably foul-mouthed, utterly cynical and materialistic, and has hideous, gaudy tastes in clothes, cars, and jewelry. Gold teeth are optional.

Only a couple of the pimps interviewed speak anything close to standard English. The rest are mush-mouthed bix-nooders whose every third word is “bitch” or some version of “motherfucker.” Usually, they end their sentences with “Ya know whum sayin,’” to which my truthful answer is “no.” It seems odd that this spark of self-knowledge doesn’t seem to lead to self-improvement in their communication skills. Sadly, there are no subtitles for the ebonically challenged, although the French and Spanish subtitles might come in handy.

If, however, one looks beyond the ghetto patois and clown-costumes, the truth is that most of these pimps aren’t stupid in the low-IQ sense. It takes some brains to run any kind of business, and some of the things they say are actually witty. Thus they probably have IQs above the African-American average of 85. This is useful, because if low-IQ is taken out of the equation, it highlights other racial differences, particularly moral ones.

Pimps aren’t necessarily stupid, but all of them are “moral imbeciles.” They manifest the Dark Triad of narcissism, sociopathy, and Machiavellianism.

The gaudy and extravagant peacocking of pimps is obviously narcissistic. The constant parade of expensive clown costumes and tasteless pimpmobiles is one of the most entertaining aspects of American Pimp.

The exploitation of women is obviously sociopathic. One of the funniest sequences of the film is where pimps explain the cut that whores get from their work. They are unanimous: “zero percent.” One of them asks, “How can I give you 100% of my pimpin’ unless you give me 100% of yo’ money?”

Pimps also take pride in their use of manipulation to control whores. Primarily they use false promises and emotional manipulation. But they aren’t above beating them. One pimp, who is now a Christian minister, claims that if you don’t beat a whore, she’ll start thinking that you don’t care about her. Although I didn’t manage to catch it on my recent viewing, I recall one pimp says that he “didn’t steal nothin’ except bitches’ minds.” (Clearly my ear for ebonics has gotten rusty.)

American Pimp doesn’t offer much insight into the psychology of the sad hookers who allow themselves to be exploited. By the looks of them, they are mostly below-average in the looks and IQ departments, although the vacant faces could be products of drug use. A large percentage of these women are white. Most of them want to have—or think they have—relationships with their pimps, which bespeaks a huge capacity for self-deception. Many hookers end up dead due to drug overdoses. Others are murdered. Still others end up in mental hospitals. One white hooker ended up married to her pimp. Although most of these women lack much potential, a decent society would protect them from such predators.

The most articulate pimp in the movie styles himself Gorgeous Dre. His real name is Andrè Taylor. He is clearly smarter than the average pimp. He’s also better looking and better dressed. Dre has a great patter about character, manliness, and integrity. One can almost forget he is a ruthless bottom-feeding sociopath. Later in the film we revisit him in jail. He has been arrested for pimping and sleeping with a sixteen-year-old.

I was rather hoping Dre would be sentenced to life, and maybe shanked in the joint. But it turns out that he did less than a year. He has put his first-class bullshitting skills to good use. He is now a “life coach” and a “community organizer” in Seattle, working to make it easier for black people to commit crimes.

Near the end of the movie, we meet a white pimp, Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlight Bunny Ranch and other legal Nevada brothels. Hof is clearly a major pervert, but he seems free of the black pimps’ Dark Triad traits. He is a businessman, not a parasite. The women who work for him do so for salaries. They are not manipulated and bullied into giving all their money to him. It is far more humane than the black system, but should a decent society allow even this sort of prostitution?

It is tempting for white people to view black pimps as pathological. But I think black pimps are authentic expressions of blackness. As outlaws, pimps reject white norms entirely. They can do what comes natural to them. Polygamy, the exploitation of women, and peacocking are all quite common in pre- and post-colonial Africa. So it makes sense that they would emerge spontaneously in black diaspora societies among subcultures that reject white norms.

I highly recommend American Pimp as an entertaining tour of the heart of darkness in America today. It definitely deserves a Blu-ray edition with improved picture and sound, as well as English subtitles.

Posted in Education, Literature, PoliticsComments Off on Review: American Pimp

The Fiscal Deficit, Modern Monetary Theory and Progressive Economic Policy

By Andrew Jackson

Modern Monetary Theory or MMT has crept in from the academic margins to become an influential doctrine in progressive policy circles in the United States. Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders drew on the ideas of MMT to shape their ambitious public spending platforms. MMT has been cited as one way to fund a Green New Deal, in combination with progressive tax reform.

It is safe to say that most Canadian progressives are not debating the finer points of monetary and fiscal policy. However it is useful to critically consider some of the most important pros and cons of MMT, based on the new book by a leading US advocate, Stephanie Kelton. (The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy. New York: Public Affairs, 2020.) In a nutshell, MMT puts forward a powerful critique of mainstream macro-economic policy but discounts the need for truly radical change if the economy is to be regulated and managed for the public good.

MMT is something of a misnomer. Far from being “modern,” it draws heavily on monetary theories developed in the 1930s by John Maynard Keynes, and since that time, by left Keynesian economists rejecting orthodox finance and the view that government budgets should (almost) always be balanced, that deficits crowd out private investment which should be driving the economy, that monetary policy (changes in interest rates) as opposed to fiscal policies (changes in public spending) should be the key policy tool for managing fluctuations in the economy, and that private investment is much more productive than government spending.

The Government and MMT

The central proposition of MMT is that a state controlling its own currency can readily finance fiscal deficits (resulting from spending increases or tax cuts) at low or no cost through money creation and direct funding of government spending by the central bank. Unlike households or businesses, governments with their own currency and their own central bank can never go broke because they can always create money to fund deficits or to pay off debts. The only real constraint on public spending for countries with monetary sovereignty is real productive capacity. Too much additional deficit financing of public spending or tax cuts in an economy with full employment will push up inflation.

Many countries in fact do not have monetary sovereignty because they do not have their own currency (e.g., individual countries in the Euro zone) or because they carry high levels of debt denominated in a foreign currency such as US dollars (e.g., Argentina). Until the 1970s, the gold standard also constrained the ability of central banks to create new money.

Today, we in Canada and many other countries do have “fiat” money that can be created by central banks “at the stroke of a pen.” Central banks can and do expand the monetary base. Yes, Virginia, Santa has a printing press and it can indeed be used to give money to all the children.

However it should be noted that, in normal times, the great majority of new money is created by the private banking system as loans rather than directly by the central bank to finance the government’s operations. Indeed, in neoliberal times, the state’s capacity to create money has been rolled back and kept out of view. Many mainstream economists accept that government and the central bank can adopt MMT-type policies but argue that it is unwise to use the lever except under extraordinary circumstances.

MMT says central banks can also set interest rates from the short term to the long term through a variety of techniques. Again, many economists would broadly agree.

MMT rightly challenges the orthodox idea that government budgets should be balanced and that deficits should be incurred only to fight deep depressions when low interest rates no longer work. As argued by Keynes in the 1930s, deficits will not crowd out savings and private investment if the economy is operating below capacity. Indeed, public investment financed by deficits can “crowd in” private investment. And public investments financed through deficits and debt can create a more robust economy and infrastructure, leaving future generations with greater wealth and opportunities. Keynes, unlike the “bastard Keynesian” wing of mainstream economics, looked forward to the day when the economy would be driven by productive public investment with no need for the state to borrow from the rentiers living off interest income.

In short, the key ideas of MMT are not so much modern as a return to the radical Keynes and the left Keynesian tradition. Both hold that conventional policy results in economies running well below capacity much of the time, and both reject the mainstream view that the macro-economy should be primarily managed through monetary rather than fiscal policy.

Today’s Extraordinary Circumstances

Today – amid the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic – the Bank of Canada is printing billions of dollars to buy government bonds in order to lower interest rates. For the first time they have moved beyond “quantitative easing” – buying up government bonds in the secondary market to lower interest rates – to direct purchases of government bonds. They are supporting massive federal and provincial government deficit spending. The Bank may not loudly endorse MMT, per se, but they are acting on that basis and demonstrating that the state can indeed always pay for what must be done. Similarly, all kinds of orthodox economists and policy makers have temporarily accepted that a massive increase in public spending can and should be undertaken without raising taxes and almost irrespective of the deficit and debt.

So far, so good. The key question is how long this can go on. Stephanie Kelton calls for much higher levels of public investment and spending to deal with a wide range of social ills, funded directly by the central bank, on a continuing rather than one-time emergency basis. This has understandably appealed to progressives.

So long as we have low inflation and a very depressed economy, the Bank of Canada is unlikely to change course and will backstop massive government spending to deal with the crisis. They will give fiscal policy the latitude to drive recovery in full recognition of the fact that even near-zero interest rates are not enough to deal with the slump. But, as things stand, they still basically control monetary policy.

MMT is rather silent on this, just saying that governments can set the interest rate. It begs the question of who actually controls interest rates, and in whose interests. Dating back to at least the 1970s, the Bank of Canada, which is largely independent of the government, has generally chosen to accept some slack in the economy so as to discipline labour and to maintain low and stable inflation. The federal government and the Bank have consistently argued that the sole objective of the central bank should be to hit the formally agreed 1% -3% inflation target, without a parallel mandate to achieve full employment as called for by progressive economists. It would be a big political change, to say the least, for the government to tell the Bank to promote full employment, let alone to direct it to fund government operations on a non-emergency basis. The whole point of current arrangements has been to isolate the Bank of Canada from democratic political pressures.

Conventional thinking has emphasized setting low interest rates in an economy operating below capacity, as has been the case in the slow recovery from the global financial crisis. But this, as Kelton argues, has starved public spending, while fuelling the destructive and unsustainable growth of household and corporate debt, and fuelling the asset price inflation that has greatly increased inequality of income and wealth. Loose monetary has singularly failed to boost real wages for most workers, and has also manifestly failed to revive private business investment. Indeed, corporations have borrowed at low rates to ramp up unproductive activities such as share buy backs and increases in dividends.

MMT rightly emphasizes that priority should be given to fiscal policy over monetary policy, while taking no single position on what governments should spend on. Proponents such as Stephanie Kelton generally support big increases in public investment – the green economy, education, infrastructure, etc., as well as a federal job guarantee. They also argue that if and when inflation becomes a problem, it could be tackled through selective tax increases on households and business, as opposed to an increase in interest rates which would limit government investment and drive up the carrying costs of the public debt.

Kelton argues that support for MMT should exist across the political spectrum, but she neglects the role of real interests. The banks want to retain their central role in money creation. Orthodox fiscal and monetary policy that is focused on low inflation and balanced budgets is strongly supported by corporate and financial interests. They do not really believe in the need for balanced budgets, as shown by the support of most US corporations for the Trump tax cuts, which have created huge deficits. But they do want small government and lower taxes, and they want to ensure the economy is driven by private investment – which means government deference to the wishes and needs of capital – rather than by public investment.

MMT also tends to minimize real structural constraints on government macro-economic policy in the context of global capital flows. As noted, MMT says that governments can control the interest rate through the central bank. This is true in the first instance but highly problematic in a world of capital mobility if investors fear too much inflation or currency devaluation. The Bank of Canada can maintain low interest rates, but they face the possibility of capital flight on the part of both domestic and foreign capital, which would bring down the exchange rate and fuel inflation. This point is discounted by MMT proponents, who are mainly talking about the US which controls the global reserve currency and is thus in a unique situation.

Many foreign central banks of surplus countries such as China and Japan own huge reserves of US bonds that they would be reluctant to sell quickly since this would raise their own exchange rate, result in large paper asset losses, and cause a major disruption to the global financial system. But fears that the US was making too much use of the printing press could still cause capital flight from the US dollar on the part of private bond holders, and help fuel US inflation.

The ability of the bond markets to punish smaller countries with high levels of public debt and incipient inflation cannot be dismissed. Keynes argued that countries could only control interest rates if currencies were managed and if there were controls on international flows of capital. Dismantling of the post-War Bretton Woods arrangements was intended to set the stage for a shift from nationally controlled economies to a world of international capital flows that constrain governments.

MMT is right to argue that so long as the economy is operating below potential, we can and should run large deficits to fill the gap and to address public policy priorities such as the need for affordable housing, expanded public healthcare and building a green economy. These deficits will have most impact in both social and economic terms if used to finance well-chosen public investments, as opposed to tax cuts. Inflation is not likely to be a problem.

But MMT tends to hide in a technical argument that does not address real political constraints that need to be seriously confronted. We can run large fiscal deficits now, but not indefinitely, without major changes in fiscal and monetary policy and in political direction. In the longer run, we cannot have everything we want just by printing money.

If we want permanently higher public spending, we also need to raise taxes. If we want much more public investment, we will also have to give less priority to private consumption, especially the luxury consumption of the rich. If we want greater control of our economy, we must confront the power of private financial interests.

In short, MMT, based on the theoretical legacy of left Keynesian economics, offers us a way forward, but it does not free us from the very real constraints of capitalism.

Posted in Literature, PoliticsComments Off on The Fiscal Deficit, Modern Monetary Theory and Progressive Economic Policy

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